Doping in Professional Sports

The big news in professional bicycle racing is that Floyd Landis may be stripped of his Tour de France title because he tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug. Sidestepping the entire issue of whether professional athletes should be allowed to take performance-enhancing drugs, how dangerous those drugs are, and what constitutes a performance-enhancing drug in the first place, I’d like to talk about the security and economic issues surrounding the issue of doping in professional sports.

Drug testing is a security issue. Various sports federations around the world do their best to detect illegal doping, and players do their best to evade the tests. It’s a classic security arms race: improvements in detection technologies lead to improvements in drug detection evasion, which in turn spur the development of better detection capabilities. Right now, it seems that the drugs are winning; in places, these drug tests are described as “intelligence tests”: if you can’t get around them, you don’t deserve to play.

But unlike many security arms races, the detectors have the ability to look into the past. Last year, a laboratory tested Lance Armstrong’s urine and found traces of the banned substance EPO. What’s interesting is that the urine sample tested wasn’t from 2005; it was from 1999. Back then, there weren’t any good tests for EVO in urine. Today there are, and the lab took a frozen urine sample — who knew that labs save urine samples from athletes? — and tested it. He was later cleared — the lab procedures were sloppy — but I don’t think the real ramifications of the episode were ever well understood. Testing can go back in time.

This has two major effects. One, doctors who develop new performance-enhancing drugs may know exactly what sorts of tests the anti-doping laboratories are going to run, and they can test their ability to evade drug detection beforehand. But they cannot know what sorts of tests will be developed in the future, and athletes cannot assume that just because a drug is undetectable today it will remain so years later.

Two, athletes accused of doping based on years-old urine samples have no way of defending themselves. They can’t resubmit to testing; it’s too late. If I were an athlete worried about these accusations, I would deposit my urine “in escrow” on a regular basis to give me some ability to contest an accusation.

The doping arms race will continue because of the incentives. It’s a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. Consider two competing athletes: Alice and Bob. Both Alice and Bob have to individually decide if they are going to take drugs or not.

Imagine Alice evaluating her two options:

“If Bob doesn’t take any drugs,” she thinks, “then it will be in my best interest to take them. They will give me a performance edge against Bob. I have a better chance of winning.

“Similarly, if Bob takes drugs, it’s also in my interest to agree to take them. At least that way Bob won’t have an advantage over me.

“So even though I have no control over what Bob chooses to do, taking drugs gives me the better outcome, regardless of what his action.”

Unfortunately, Bob goes through exactly the same analysis. As a result, they both take performance-enhancing drugs and neither has the advantage over the other. If they could just trust each other, they could refrain from taking the drugs and maintain the same non-advantage status — without any legal or physical danger. But competing athletes can’t trust each other, and everyone feels he has to dope — and continues to search out newer and more undetectable drugs — in order to compete. And the arms race continues.

Some sports are more vigilant about drug detection than others. European bicycle racing is particularly vigilant; so are the Olympics. American professional sports are far more lenient, often trying to give the appearance of vigilance while still allowing athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs. They know that their fans want to see beefy linebackers, powerful sluggers, and lightning-fast sprinters. So, with a wink and a nod, they only test for the easy stuff.

For example, look at baseball’s current debate on human growth hormone: HGH. They have serious tests, and penalties, for steroid use, but everyone knows that players are now taking HGH because there is no urine test for it. There’s a blood test in development, but it’s still some time away from working. The way to stop HGH use is to take blood tests now and store them for future testing, but the players’ union has refused to allow it and the baseball commissioner isn’t pushing it.

In the end, doping is all about economics. Athletes will continue to dope because the Prisoner’s Dilemma forces them to do so. Sports authorities will either improve their detection capabilities or continue to pretend to do so — depending on their fans and their revenues. And as technology continues to improve, professional athletes will become more like deliberately designed racing cars.

This essay originally appeared on

Posted on August 10, 2006 at 5:18 AM66 Comments


Deathwind August 10, 2006 6:19 AM

The look in the past possibility is a different case compared to other security conundrums. But it doesn’t really affect the issue of prisonner’s dilemna as humans have a preference for the present.

One could think that athletes taking drugs would think about the fact that in the future they could be unmasked as having doped themselves.

But being a star in the present, winning a lot of money and being unmasked a few years later when you have already spent your gains beats staying a nobody forever.

For me the real difference to other security arms races (like the war on terrorism) is that this one can be stopped very cheaply : just legalize doping. I don’t want to argue for this here, just pointing out that this is the real difference compared to other secrurity issues.

punter August 10, 2006 6:47 AM

@ Deathwind

I agree that humans have a preference for the present, but that doesn’t mean people will always take the short term gain.

If the long term repercussions of doping in sports were dire, i.e. high likelihood of being caught, forfeit all medals and winnings, sued by sponsors for theft by deception, all future earnings garnished until fines etc. paid, then you’re more likely to desuade athletes from that course of action. The problem is that the consequences aren’t this severe in most sports, as Bruce pointed out.

In particular I think we need to look at the sponsorship angle. Top athletes often make as much, if not more, from sponsorship than from competing – think Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, David Beckham et al. If drugs cheats had not only to forfeit future earnings from this avenue but also repay past earnings (with interest) because they were based on fraudulent performances – this would provide a greater disincentive. However, large corporate sponsors care not about the sports, the fans or the sports people, their only interest is whether sponsoring someone will help increase revenue for the next quarter.

jayh August 10, 2006 7:21 AM

What bothers me is why Congress and other government entities are so involved, especially with regard to substances which are not necessarily illegal in the general public.

While it’s appropriate that sports organizations can specify behavior standards for players, government should be staying the hell out.

M August 10, 2006 7:29 AM

The trouble with doping detection is false positives. If Alice is willing to dope herself for the advantage it gives over Bob, then why not just dope Bob? Put something in his salt shaker. Bob tests positive and he’s out of the game. Alice wins by default.

This situation reminds me of the anti-drug paranoia back in the 80’s. Everyone started drug testing. Peon employees didn’t like it much, but had little choice if they wanted to keep their jobs/salary/homes/eating/etc.

So the smarter ones would hold a bake sale on drug testing day. To raise money to protest the drug tests. With a proper sales pitch, upper management couldn’t turn them down without looking bad. The foods were all based around poppy seed recipes. After the entire executive board tested falsely positive for heroin, the drug tests were quietly dropped.

Jurgen August 10, 2006 8:19 AM

Bruce, you’ve picked the wrong subject.

Sports is about who’s best in some bodily trait. It’s NOT about who has the best pharmacist; your argument leads there. That’s why people around the world except some Big Corp sponsored couch potatoes want to look at sports. It’s about a battle being played out, not about sacrificing the players’ (and the viewers’) health for being entertained. If the playing field isn’t even and the odds are stacked, the battle is boring; not being open in advance about the odds, is called cheating.
If you implicitly state (as you do, by your apologetic tone) that a bit (how much is that, or does this spiral out of control?) of doping is OK in Amrican sports: Is that why nobody except a small minority (Americans) likes American ‘sports’?

And for the prisoner’s dliemma: It’s not about whether the other guy cheats too or not, it’s about one getting ahead of the honest crowd of competitors by (temporarily) getting one up on the officials. Another reason why it’s called cheating: One would only take the risk of being caught (and that risk is quite high), if one believes oneself not to be able to win outright; only by cheating one believes to get ahead. Which is unfair for those that want to win by their own ability, not by being bionic. But then again — some/many Americans may not grasp as the rest of the world would, that an honorable defeat commands much more respect than a cheat to a short-lived victory.

Two solutions: 1. Humiliate cheats for life, and let them pay dearly for the rest of their lives for the bad taste they have given the runner-ups now winners for the rest of their lives, too, for never being able to feel the complete untainted satisfaction of victory. 2. Create a class for addicts, similar to chess. No-one would want to have all chess competitions have human and Deep Blue contestants. (In physical sports, the comparison goes quite a length: computer manufacturers / chemical plants using human bodies to shuffle the pieces over the board / over the track or field.)

FP August 10, 2006 8:20 AM

The sport’s customers (TV audiences) care about heroes, and they want “games”, in their ancient roman, gladiatorial sense.

Fairness is not a necessary trait for heroes; just look at the “always bending the rules” type of hero popularized by Hollywood.

Consequently, audiences care no more about athletes taking performance enhancing drugs than they care about other celebrities taking cocain. It’s accepted as a necessity for being in the business.

Economics dictate that the audiences must be pleased so that advertising revenue keeps flowing. In this light, curbing drug use is just an unnecessary expense.

Herbert August 10, 2006 8:47 AM

On the Armstrong case: as far as I know, Armstrong was not official proven of doping because there was no B-sample. The sample where they found EPO was a single sample (probably the second left over sample of a former regular test).
(For me personally this prove is sufficient)
There is a debate whether that test was done well, according to standards. But even if it was completely bullet-proof, the guidelines say that after a positive A-sample, there must be a B-sample test, with the athletes “lawyers” (or something like that) and probably in a different lab with very thorough pre-cautions and testing methods. As here there was no more sample left, even the best conducted test would not be sufficient to prove doping. This is also a protection for athletes, so as a policy this is OK.
The mistake here (and where the publicity problem starts): this test should never have been published!
They need such old samples to verify there testing methods, but they must forever be disconnected from the athletes name, as they are irrelevant as official prove. Except for hollywood movies nobody get’s sued if the only prove is the weapon (with fingerprints) that was retrieved using illegal methods (without search warrant), because it is clear that the judge would dismiss it.
What does this tell us about security: it’s not a technical problem, the process and guidelines weren’t followed.
And about proving backwards: the process can be improved (e.g. taking three samples, so even 5 years later you are able to test 2 official A/B samples), but it will never be perfect. It is always a compromise

Anonymous August 10, 2006 9:12 AM


“One would only take the risk of being caught (and that risk is quite high), if one believes oneself not to be able to win outright.”

I think you are missing Bruce’s point here, the thrust of which is that the best athlete, although he may win consistently in a clean competition, cannot be assured of victory as weaker competitors who dope may gain enough of an advantage to compete with and beat the best athlete (BA). Since BA does not know if other competitors will cheat (defect in Prisoner Dilemma parlance), he is tempted to dope himself in order to maintain/defend his initial advantage.

punter August 10, 2006 9:12 AM


“One would only take the risk of being caught (and that risk is quite high), if one believes oneself not to be able to win outright.”

I think you are missing Bruce’s point here, the thrust of which is that the best athlete, although he may win consistently in a clean competition, cannot be assured of victory as weaker competitors who dope may gain enough of an advantage to compete with and beat the best athlete (BA). Since BA does not know if other competitors will cheat (defect in Prisoner Dilemma parlance), he is tempted to dope himself in order to maintain/defend his initial advantage.

aikimark August 10, 2006 9:49 AM

My understanding of Floyd’s test is that there was no banned substance found, rather higher-than-allowed testosterone:epitestosterone ratio.

In a recent interview, Floyd stated that his level of testosterone wasn’t higher than normal. Floyd claimed that it was lower than normal (for him). The only thing elevated was the ratio.

Floyd August 10, 2006 9:50 AM

In the case of Armstrong, the EPO was found during research tests. These tests did not have the same controls around them the formal drug tests have. They weren’t exactly sloppy, but they weren’t formal drug tests. And as pointed out above, there was no B-sample.

The results were leaked from inside the lab to the press, they were not formally published.

Matthew Skala August 10, 2006 10:01 AM

I usually use my Web comic as the link when I comment here, but this time it’s particularly relevant (see “M”‘s comment above):

Scott Dorsey has proposed that doping should be a sport. Award medals to whoever can take the biggest dose of a given drug without dropping dead, and so on. It’s a test of your physical constitution for which you’d have to go into training and so on, so it bears a more than passing resemblance to other existing sports. I’m not sure it that would really help much, because it wouldn’t remove the incentive for competitors in other sports to take drugs too, but it would be fun to watch, anyway.

More seriously, I wonder how much longer it’ll make sense for us to have professional sports at all. The relevance of the whole exercise to the general public seems to be depleting rapidly, and doping is only a small part of that.

Diogenes August 10, 2006 10:07 AM

Whatever happened to integrity? Give me a ball player like Maris or Williams who step up to the plate, take their best swing, and accept the results (be they fair or foul).

If you want to enhance your performance in your sport…practice, practice, practice!

Go to the batting cage, driving range, lap pool, etc., and keep working harder than your opponents.

Sports are about victory, and there is also victory in knowing you have done your best WITHOUT resorting to “chemistry” or other questionable means.

To paraphrase the Secretary of Defense: Go up to the plate with the body you have.

Would Maris and Williams have taken performance “enhancers” if they had the chance? Maybe, but it seems very unlikely to me. Integrity meant something back then…

Still looking, apparently, for that honest man

another_bruce August 10, 2006 10:37 AM

it’s an economic issue all right, but except for people who care deeply about a particular sport, it isn’t a security issue.
i don’t give a rat’s ass about the tour de france. i assume every single one of them is doping. the nature of sports itself has changed over our lifetimes. fair competition is passe, now it’s all about money. the nfl, just for example, won’t do a thing about stricter drug testing until its bottom line is threatened, which is unlikely to happen because pro football is part of the circus intended to distract us from the injustice all around us, keep us indoors and beered up on sunday afternoons instead of burning down government buildings. the real line of scrimmage is your tv screen; the league, teams, players and advertisers on the other side of it are actually your adversaries.

Anonymoose August 10, 2006 10:38 AM

The prisoner’s dilemma is only accurate if all athletes perform equally without doping. Then doping is the only way to maximize one’s own gain.

Reality (wait–can this be applied to professional sports?) is different: one can train harder, eat better, play on a different team, get a new agent, brownnose a coach, etc.

And whatever happened to morals and integrity? It seems these days that many want it both (conflicting) ways: 1) don’t legislate morality, and 2) whatever isn’t illegal should be tolerated or even celebrated as “diverse”.

Anonymous August 10, 2006 10:43 AM

@aikimark: testosterone (other than that produced by the body) is a banned substance, and the unusual testosterone/epitestosterone ratio is proof that Landis did take artificial testosterone instead of naturally having an unusually high testosterone level.

He cheated, and he got caught – and he’s getting what he deserves now.

Rich August 10, 2006 11:13 AM

Another angle here is that Jimmy who is betting on Alice to win can get a payoff if he can get Bob disqualified by paying Heather to slip a little testosterone into Bob’s massage cream. Or Bob’s meal. Or Bob’s water bottle. Or forget testosterone and go for (very-long-latin-name).

We think encrypting a message is hard, try protecting a team of cyclists who train thousands of miles on the open road.

Pat Cahalan August 10, 2006 11:21 AM

I see both sides of this.

On the first part -> if you accept the premise that doping is a bad thing overall for the integrity of any sport, then keeping samples for a protracted period of time (to be tested in the future against doping tactics that are undetectable here and now) seems to be a reasonable measure for any organized athletic competition oversight organization.

On the second part -> as Lance’s “old sample with no ‘B’ test” story shows, the athletes have a definite reason to be leery of allowing a sample to be kept for a protracted period of time, simply because it is much more difficult to keep stringent controls for long periods of time.

In addition, doping tests are absolutely absurd without a well defined and uniformly applied enforcement measure. If there is no negative consequence for being caught, there will be people who will break the rules… but the negative consequence has to apply to equitably to everyone who is caught.

You can’t just fine someone who is caught doping -> for a 46th member of a football squad who makes $400K a year, a $100K fine is substantial… but for someone who makes $4.5 M, it’s trivial. Salary is also hardly the only source of income for some athletes -> even if they all made the same base salary, and the fine was equivalent to an entire year’s compensation, the well-endorsed athlete (say, Tiger Woods) can make double or triple (or an order of magnitude) more money from sources other than his/her salary.

About the only real solution I can imagine would be to require an athlete to put their entire income (salary, endorsements, celebrity appearances, etc) during the year(s) they are in a professional sport into an escrow, receiving a stipend for living expenses or whatever until such a time as they retire, at which point all of their samples are tested one last time and they get a big fat check upon passing the test (there’s still a window here for cheating, but you have to draw a line someplace). This is obviously magnificently draconian and completely unfair to all those athletes that don’t dope, and would encourage players to retire before they might otherwise choose to do so, and has a host of other problems.

Put another way, doping isn’t going to go away.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater August 10, 2006 11:23 AM


Use of “greenies” (amphetamine pills) was widespread in MLB during Maris’ and Williams’ day. In fact, players were looked down upon by their teammates as not doing everything they could to win if they refused to take them.

Diogenes August 10, 2006 11:32 AM

@ Dr. Noisewater

Thank you for that information, I had no idea but I’m really not that surprised. It just proves my point that I am ‘still’ looking for an honest man.

So long as there is human nature there will be those who will “do what it takes to win”, and those who “pressure” them to do so (teammates, fans, media, etc.).

Prohias August 10, 2006 11:37 AM

Urine escrow? I always knew there was gold in the concept of allowing people to pee into my freezer.

Matthew Skala August 10, 2006 12:51 PM

I don’t understand where a firm line can even be sensibly drawn on what constitutes doping. For instance, athletes are almost certainly allowed to control their diet in an attempt to maximize performance. If I can run faster or throw better by eating a salad before the game instead of a steak, that’s presumably allowed. But if my salad is made from coca leaves, resulting in my consuming a dose of the banned substance cocaine, that’s presumably not allowed. (We’ll ignore for the sake of argument the fact that coca leaves may be illegal even for non-athletes… I mention coca because it’s well-known, but someone who cared to could easily enough find some other plant that would contain a banned substance for athletes but wouldn’t be an illegal drug in general.) What about a cup of coffee – that’s got caffeine in it. I’m pretty sure that the actual rules on caffeine depend on the dosage, so that drinking a cup of coffee would be allowed but swallowing a couple of caffeine pills with a dosage equivalent to ten cups, wouldn’t be. I’m not certain of that, though; it probably depends on which authority’s regulations we’re talking about. What exactly is the difference between a dietary choice and a drug?

Athletes are generally allowed to drink water during competition. I think they’re allowed to drink Gatorade. But Gatorade was engineered to be performance-enhancing. Why is it allowed?

We can argue about what’s a diet and what’s a drug, but that’s not even the only way it can be murky as to what is or isn’t an unfair advantage. What if it could be shown that acupuncture treatments would increase an athlete’s performance – would using them be allowed or not? What about sitting in a hyperbaric chamber full of oxygen – which some sports teams do use during training, and as far as I know it isn’t viewed as unacceptable – is that doping? If not, how is it not-doping? It seems like a performance-enhancing substance much like others that are banned.

Nate August 10, 2006 2:15 PM

Doping has ruined so many games and sports that in 20 years people will have a difficult time even enjoying professional athletics. Records will be broken here and there and nobody will care because its the needles that are breaking the records, not the players.

Chris August 10, 2006 2:57 PM

Thank you for the interesting article.
Did you also think about a possible future with genetic doping? Some people assume that Lance Armstrong’s cancer could be caused by a failed attemp of genetic doping (though horm ones could also have caused it). What would be the way to control sportsmen? Should every person register its DNA when he/she is born?

About the possible “urine escrow” of athletes:
who will guarantee that they deposit their OWN urine and not foreign? That “trick” is quite old and the reason why after bicycle racers do the test naked.

roy August 10, 2006 3:05 PM

The tests are developed to be sensitive to target chemicals. They are not designed to be specific to those chemicals. Anyone who isn’t doping runs a risk of being falsely accused — and convicted — purely on false testimony from a faulty chemical test.

To make it fair, the athletes should be able to subject the officials to the same tests for doping. Any positive — false or not — would result in immediate firing with prejudice, and the official would have to repay his career earnings on the spot.

derf August 10, 2006 3:10 PM

Prisoner’s Dilemma is going to more important as implanted human-machine interfaces and gengineering get better. How can a standard human compete with someone who has implants specific to the job?

Ole Eichhorn August 10, 2006 3:21 PM

I know your article was not specifically about Floyd Landis, but I think his case may be a bit different from the typical athlete doping situation.

I have a real question about the Floyd Landis case, and I wonder if you’ve have it too.

In stage 15 (L’Alpe D’Huez), Floyd took back the yellow jersey. The leader is always tested, so he was tested. And he was negative. Testosterone ratio was less than 4:1, no exogenous testosterone. In stage 16, Floyd bonked. He wasn’t in yellow and didn’t win, so he wasn’t tested. In stage 17 Floyd made his incredible comeback. Since he won the stage, he was tested, and his testosterone ratio was 11:1, and exogenous testosterone was found in both A and B samples. Stage 18 was flat, nothing changed, and since Floyd was not in yellow, he was not tested. Stage 19 was the time trial, which put him back in yellow, so he was tested again. And he was negative again. Testosterone ratio was less than 4:1, no exogenous testosterone.

Those are the facts, nobody denies these, including Floyd.

So here’s my question – is it really possible for someone to be negative, then two days later be that positive, then two days later be negative again?

It doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t see any way to explain this physiologically. If he was doping, he would have been positive in all three tests. Even if he only started doping on stage 17 – which would be ridiculous, but even if – he would still have been positive on stage 19.

So set aside the fact that Testosterone doesn’t help GC riders, set aside the illogic of taking Testosterone when you know you’re going to be tested for it, and set aside Floyd’s denials, which I want to believe but hey, people lie.

There is just no way to explain the facts if Floyd was doping. The only explanation I can see which fits the facts is that someone tampered with the stage 17 samples.

What do you think?

Ian Woollard August 10, 2006 8:16 PM

I think the doping angle also reflects on records- if somebody is stripped of a record due to doping, then it makes it fairer for the other athletes later on. If athletes had compulsory freezing of samples for record attempts to be counted then that would atleast be fairer in that regard.

Davi Ottenheimer August 10, 2006 10:34 PM

Well said. I really enjoyed reading this, but I was only with you until the last paragraph.

BS: “In the end, doping is all about economics. ”

I think you said it better in the prior paragraphs. In the end professional sports are all about economics. Doping is just one type of cheating (or show-stopping performance) and thus a symptom; not really what it is all about.

BS: “Athletes will continue to dope because the Prisoner’s Dilemma forces them to do so.”

I agree with others above that this does not always become the case and the athletes are not “forced”. Some athletes actually win without cheating. You might say it is rare, but it still happens (perhaps only as a lifestyle choice of the athlete) and thus the dilemma is false when the presence of true talent is unmistakable.

BS: “Sports authorities will either improve their detection capabilities or continue to pretend to do so — depending on their fans and their revenues.”

Pretend is right. Our modern medical system is still very suceptible to faith-based approaches to chemistry and health, as well as pressure from the companies that profit from continuing belief in status quo tests and treatments. The recent revolution in how to diagnose and treat ulcers is just one example…

“The pair faced years of ridicule, not only from fellow scientists but also from a pharmaceutical industry that was invested heavily in producing antacids for controlling the symptoms of ulcer.

The ultimate acceptance of their idea began when Marshall swallowed a flask of H. pylori, developing a severe case of gastritis. Acceptance grew when physicians observed that ulcers could be cured quickly with a short course of antibiotics and bismuth compounds that killed the bacteria.”

BS: “And as technology continues to improve, professional athletes will become more like deliberately designed racing cars.”

Well, even if you don’t dope, you are still “deliberately designing” your body and trying to make it outperform others who manage theirs less well. In fact, how do you explain away the whole idea of keeping oneself healthy with treatments? Where do you draw the line between maintaining health and doping? There is a philisophical issue here that is left unhandled, so your conclusion leaves me unconvinced.

Davi Ottenheimer August 10, 2006 10:37 PM

“The only explanation I can see which fits the facts is that someone tampered with the stage 17 samples.”

Maybe the tests really aren’t as accurate as we want to belive?

Stefan Wagner August 10, 2006 11:14 PM

It’s not only the prisioners dilemma (where I agree, that the costs and probability of being catched have to be considered too) but it’s a problem of the almende too.

Every sportsman is interested in cheating, but together, they’re damaging their sport.

The german cyclist Jan Ulrich was dropped by his sponsor a few days after his cheating was observed.

Sponsors are affected, and of course the audience, sport channels, and last but not least the sportsmen themself.

And it is not only a problem when big money is involved. AFAIK in body building doping is commen practice.
To win a competition is in itself an attractive experience.

Pete August 11, 2006 12:48 AM

The bigger issue here is how do you trust the lab doing the tests?

Assume that the attacker wants to take out a favorite, how easy is it to do this?
Pre-contaminate the sample bottle.
Contaminate the sample before it is tested.
Fix the testing machine.
Fix the software in the testing machine.
Contaminate the escrow samples.
Dope the athlete’s food with something that will fool the test machine into a false positive (the poppy seed approach noted above).

Given the partisan nature of sports, any zero tolerance stance could easily lead to the favorites being taken out of the game.

If we assume that the attacker is the testing lab, we have nearly as many issues as we have with paperless electronic voting 🙂

tF August 11, 2006 3:17 AM

I’m sorry to say, but in my opinion sport based on the physical performance of an individual is dead. If not already the case, doping will in future take place on a genetic level. Technology is by far outpacing what is “natural???. In future it will simply be a race between laboratories (let’s see who can engineer the fastest athlete). I’m afraid this is an arms race that can simply not be won – enjoy the Olympics in it’s current form, while it lasts…

C Gomez August 11, 2006 7:24 AM


Nice to see someone take the ad hominem approach. Nevermind many competitors from many countries were thrown out of the Tour before it even began. This is all about Americans!

There is such a lack of objective critical thinking.

David Berlind August 11, 2006 1:23 PM

As a former bike racer (was USCF Cat 3), nary a TdF passes without my eyes glued to the TV. So, I’ve been following the Floyd Landis situation very closely and have a personal/athlete security-related observation that gets into some of the questions provoked by Bruce and other commenters.

The Landis situation doesn’t add up if you consider at least two things to be true (1) that earlier Landis samples were clean and (2) testosterone doping doesn’t produce short-term results. There is apparently some controversy over item #2. The Merc reports that testosterone can have a great short-term effect (see But I don’t put much credence in researchers that make themselves the subject of their studies. The toxicologist injected himself with testosterone. Sounds like a creepy sci-fi movie to me.

You don’t train your entire life the way he has, come from the religious convictions that Landis does, and then, mid-way through the most important race of your life, in a country where the people are determined to out any American cycling champion for doping, dope with one of the easiest things for labs to detect… one that produces questionable short-term results. It’s hard to imagine any elite cyclist being that incredibly stupid.

On Jay Leno, Landis suggested that something he ingested may have been spiked. Testosterone doping can be accomplished through means of injection or ingestion. I think that raises some really interesting possibilities. Let’s say you’re someone with an agenda to ruin the career of America’s current best racer and the potential TdF winner. And you’re in France where they’re just drooling to catch an American champ doping. What would you do? If it were me, I’d pick something that is very easily detected in doping tests and that is simple to get into a cyclist’s system. Something like ingested testosterone. For someone who is very determined, I’m guessing that spiking Landis’ food or drink would not have been that difficult.

For example, I was a spectator at the TdF in 1993 (the only TdF I’ve been to), I distinctly remember how all of the team vehicles were routinely parked in completely unsecured areas. Farmland-turned into parking lots, basically. There was nowhere else to park. I roamed freely about these plots of farmland (as did other cycling fans) and even poked my head into some of the luxurious team buses to see what they looked like inside. No one stopped me. At that time, the “American” team was fielded by Motorola and there was nothing that blocked my access to Motorola’s vehicles and even the mechanic’s vehicle (I have pictures of this) where the team mechanic was off somewhere else and I don’t think anyone would have stopped me if I started toying with all sorts of things ranging from the bikes themselves to components to water bottles and what not.

Sound crazy (for someone to be that determined)? This wouldn’t be the first time attempts to destroy an athelete were made “off the field.” How about what happened to Nancy Kerrigan?

So, the security-related observation here is, how do athlete’s protect themselves from external forces with the motive and the means?


Matt August 11, 2006 4:46 PM

I’m not sold on Landis’ guilt, but he may have been using a masking agent to hide another drug and, during the course of the TdF, the masking agent failed. I’m no expert, and I hope Landis is clean, but we will never really know…

Fred Schwacke August 11, 2006 8:07 PM

Like you I do not know if he is guilty or innocent, but I am concerned that the press has made a judgement based upon what may be incomplete information. Frankly, I don’t care much about cycling, but I am concerned about right and wrong, and the information which has been omitted appears to be vital. I have only seen piece of information in the press once, and if the report is accurate, his testosterone was actually LOW, not high.
It was the ratio of two types of testosterone that was too high. According to the report and a Landis interview, the “base” type of testosterone was so low as to be nearly non existent. From my knowledge of chemical testing, the precision of measurements at the extreme ends of the spectrum is very questionable and errors at the low end can totally destroy the validity of ratios.
My concern is that his trial in the press is being conducted by people who are not skilled in the field, and may be more interested in a saleable story than reporting the facts.

truth machine August 11, 2006 10:28 PM

Schneier, and expert on computer security, is pretending to be an expert on something he’s not — drug use and testing in pro cycling, and the motivational psychology of drug use in sports. Handwaving Doug Hofstadter-like just-so stories about the Prisoner’s Dilemma omit all the devilishly important details.

truth machine August 11, 2006 10:32 PM

“I have only seen piece of information in the press once”

That indicates that you have paid unusually little attention. Landis’s sample showed a C12/C13 ratio that almost certainly indicates the presence of exogenous testosterone. Whether the sample accurately reflects what was in Landis’s system is not known — and it’s a bit surprising and alarming that Schneier doesn’t touch upon that security issue.

truth machine August 11, 2006 10:45 PM

“the unusual testosterone/epitestosterone ratio is proof that Landis did take artificial testosterone instead of naturally having an unusually high testosterone level”

No, the ratio is not proof of that at all — the high T/E ratio is known to be a possible natural physiological effect. But it raises suspicions, so a C12/C13 ratio test was done — that one is considered conclusive for artificial testosterone — but it doesn’t prove that Landis took it, or took it intentionally — there’s very little in the way of proof in empirical science.

“He cheated, and he got caught – and he’s getting what he deserves now.”

Perhaps, but since your opinion is based on ignorance and misinformation, it’s neither here nor there.

truth machine August 11, 2006 10:55 PM

“In the case of Armstrong, the EPO was found during research tests. These tests did not have the same controls around them the formal drug tests have. They weren’t exactly sloppy, but they weren’t formal drug tests. And as pointed out above, there was no B-sample.”

Wrong; the test was done on the B-samples (which was exhausted by the test), as the A-samples had already been exhausted (I say “samples” because many samples from many athletes were tested; purportedly, 12 tested positive, 6 of which were Armstrong’s and the other 6 of which have not been identified, even though the identities are known).

Very few people, including many posting here, have spent any time looking into the facts, instead depending on whatever snippets, from whatever sources, happen to cross their eyeballs, and yet they feel quite free to offer up opinions and conclusions. That raises a reliability concern that should be of interest to people here.

Floyd Landis August 11, 2006 10:55 PM

I feel that Floyd Landis is not guilty. I mean, come on. The testosterone would not have affected him in 1 or 2 days. He isn’t stupid. He knows very well that wouldn’t work.

What do you think about Greg Lemond’s involvement? He keeps talking about how great this is to cut down on dopers. Oh, please. Greg Lemond, You are a has-been who just wants to stay in the news.

I feel it’s right for Floyd to go after the lab, as he has probible reason to! He found out the resutls of the “B” Sample- From the news! He should have been the first one alerted.

I have faith that FLoyd will eventually clear his name…:)

truth machine August 11, 2006 11:05 PM

“In the end, doping is all about economics. ”

And in the end, economics is a fraudulent pseudo-science based on a known-to-be-false model of human behavior. I suggest that Schneier apply his Prisoner’s Dilemma model to the behavior of economists — it will tell him that economists will favor those theories that most benefit them personally — where “benefit” does not only refer to monetary benefit, although there’s plenty of that, but also to support of one’s ideology. And economists are notoriously ideological.

truth machine August 11, 2006 11:08 PM

“I have faith that FLoyd will eventually clear his name…:)”

It’s very unlikely. How could he? But then, I really don’t grok this concept of “faith”. How does it differ from “irrational belief”?

spassmeister August 12, 2006 12:30 AM

Floyd will have a tough time proving a negative, whether true or not. If he’s telling the truth, how could he ever “prove” it? On the contrary, if you wanted to hurt Floyd – why not spike a drink, or the massage balm, or suntan lotion, or some other method that would make him test positive for a drug that is baned, but not historically known to help endurance athletes? That way, if he wins (as he did) he’ll get tested and humiliated. If he does not, you have not provided him with any real help.

dbrower August 12, 2006 1:03 AM

We know the #17 test had 11:1 T/E, and 3.99 CIR ratio. We do not have any idea what the T/E was in the pre/post tests. With them having been negative, there was no need to do the IRMS test, and likely the A and B samples were disposed.

So, as useful as it would be to know, we may not be able to tell that there was a discrepency that can’t be accounted for. Without the IRMS of pre/post, we don’t know one way or another. In this case, the ‘precautions’ for the rider’s protection may end up screwing him. That is an interesting security dilemma.


Richard Braakman August 12, 2006 6:06 AM

@truth machine:

Saying that the test was done “on the B-samples” makes as much sense as saying that an experiment was done “on the control group”.

The sample may have been the B-sample originally, when the A-sample was tested. But when it is the only remaining sample for a completely new test, then it no longer fulfills that role.

Neighborcat August 12, 2006 7:03 AM

I don’t “follow” spectator sports of any kind, but as a previously avid rider I do find a “gee whizz” interest in the TdF, simply because it is a level of performance neither I nor 99.9% of humanity could ever achieve, regardless of what we ingest or inject.

No pill or shot is going to raise you or I to this level of performance. Eating. breathing, sleeping and perhaps even defecating cycling, and decades of mental and physical training wouldn’t do it for most either. I don’t give a damn what they do or don’t take, these are still the best of the best.

I find the line drawn between “doping” and “clean” to be arbitrary, and I detect the stink of legislated morality in most cases. Homo Sapiens seek out and selectively ingest chemicals to achive desired effects, and have since before our species left the trees. Get over it.

Gman August 12, 2006 9:44 AM

Can we have an honest conversation about the protection that is provided to American cyclist while there sample is handed over in a lab to foreigners who can spike the samples. Is this possible

Cycle Mia August 12, 2006 12:21 PM

Unfortunately for Floyd, it looks as if he may well be a victim of poor operational procedures married to an obsession of catching “cheaters”. For starters, an event as high profile as TDF should test all riders after each stage, so as to get a baseline each day, not simply because one has the jersey or stage win.

The current situation leaves us with comparing a Landis positive at st 17 with a Landis negative at st 19. Comparing a 17 to 18 would be a lot more in his favor, and with so much at stake you have to wonder why it was not done.

I can see future events with teams testing their own riders with private labs, after each stage, just in case, so as to be able to refute official lab results.

The obsession with testing has become so pervasive, that the testing itself now ruins the event, and is as dangerous as not testing, if not worse. We are now all criminals, and if we are called criminals, we are told we need to find as sophisticated and expensive tools to show our innocence, as the tools that find us guilty. It’s impossible.

If you want to find riders guilty of something, all you have to do is create an incredibly esoteric, nano measuring test that if it points to guilt, itcannot be refuted by traditional socratic methods. We can see a thief on camera steal from a store. Who among us can truly ” see ” what the lab reports? We are left grasping at the damning finger of science, which is incomprehensible to most of us. The results on Landis declining fortunes, though, are readily observed.

I think he is innocent, but he is taking the path of trying to prove the impossible, and in doing so will now lose his personal fortune, in unnecessary legal fees, in addition to the millions lost in TDF and post TDF revenue.

Paul Provost August 12, 2006 6:36 PM

I have to comment on the security/related theory that has been floated through this discussion. When Landis supposedly was sabotaged was on the night he fell from 1st to 11th and out of contention of winning the race. Who would bother spiking his drink at that point? For all intents and purposes his TdF was toast. The guy makes a miracle comeback and tests positive. It is just another sad asterisk in the world of professional sport. I am a huge sports fan but am continually losing interest and respect for these professionals who will do anything to win.

Mac August 12, 2006 9:49 PM

Someone missed the logic train, Paul P. Of course Floyd would be sabotaged on the day of his big comeback. What better time to stick it to Les Americain bastards? If he had lost the stage it wouldn’t be necessary.

I would surmise that if sabotage is involved, it had been planned well in advance as an insurance policy. And it could well be a sponsor who is involved, not just a disgruntled fan or competitor.

It’s a nasty, nasty world. Trust no one.

Floyd was set up.

Anthony August 14, 2006 7:28 AM

I emailed this comment to Bruce after the article was published, and he encouraged me to post it here. Sorry if it reiterates points already made in the thread.

Dear Dr. Schneier,

Prisoner’s dilemma is an interesting game theoretic construct that has many near analogies in the real world, but few perfect. In my experience, it more often clouds the issues than sheds light on them.

In this case, I think you ignore the fact that many athletes do not at all regard taking performance enhancing drugs and winning a competition as superior to not taking them and losing. In part, this is a cultural difference — such drugs are more accepted in certain cultures (such as many countries in Eastern Europe), which even further complicates putting this situation into the PD straight jacket. If winning was the sole interesting goal to accomplish, then the prisoner’s dilemma could have been more reasonably applied, but it isn’t. Athletes make decisions for lots of reasons completely unrelated to winning, such as conforming to personal ethical rules. Then there are also the more mundane aspects — fear of getting caught being one of them. How large that fear is varies from person to person and is probably rarely aligned with the real probabilites. In some circumstances and for some people it is great enough for them to avoid PED, in others it might not.

My point is that while simple models of agent interactions, such as the PD, might be a good starting point for thinking about doping and similar situations, it shouldn’t comprise the whole analysis. Game theory usually looks best on paper.

Best regards,

Comet August 15, 2006 11:50 AM

My take on the whole thing is that until the ATHLETE has some way to control the chain of custody of the sample(s) there will ALWAYS be potential for cheating by the people involved in the testing… but we all know that officials are 100% clean, don’t we.

Gee, if I were offered a good bit of money to mess with a sample I just might, seeing that the cyclists make millions and I make peanuts.

BeBe August 15, 2006 12:16 PM

re: Floyd Landis
I’m trying to keep up with the official findings. A NYTimes on-line story a week or so ago claimed that a test of the A sample determined that non-natural (exogenous?) testosterone had been found. An earlier posting in this webblog said the B sample also tested positive for this non-natural testosterone. Anyone? Bueller?
I agree with an earlier comment that at some point it becomes faith — and I believe in Floyd.

Aaron August 17, 2006 1:45 PM

Honestly, I’ve pretty much completely discounted the Tour de Farce. Accusations are so rampant now that it’s not possible to be identified as a favorite, let alone win the race, without being accused of doping. This is my great fear with drugs, not that there are players using them (which is bad enough), but that soon it will become impossible to win anything without being accused of cheating.

What’s needed are tests that can identify illegal drugs before an event takes place, and defined standards for removing an athlete from participating if those standards are violated. We need to stop all this retroactive testing nonsense, as it can’t be appropriately sanctioned, can’t be refuted, and inevitably over-shadows the accomplishments of everyone who participates in the event. If we want to punish a Bonds or a Landis, keep them out of the next game or race, but don’t pretend that everything they’ve accomplished never happened.

Biological enhancement is only going to increase in the future, and at some point we’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that the “level playing field” concept is (and always has been) a myth.

Francois August 19, 2006 6:33 PM

The Armstrong case wasn’t merely a question of sloppy lab work; it was so bad the independent UCI report (written by a former head of an anti-doping lab) essentially accused the lab and WADA of misconduct.

What assurance do atheletes have that their samples won’t be tampered with by hostile laboratory workers? There wasn’t even a chain-of-custody established in the Armstrong case (over a period of 5 or 6 years!) and the lab has unpluggable leaks to a tabloid paper which can link up “anonymous” samples to the person who provided them!

From Wikipedia:

Vrijman’s report exonerated Armstrong […] and said that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the LNDD may have “behaved in ways that are completely inconsistent with the rules and regulations of international anti-doping control testing,” and may also have been against the law. [21] The report said that tests on urine samples were conducted improperly and fell so short of scientific standards that it was “completely irresponsible” to suggest they “constitute evidence of anything.”[22] The recommendation of the commission’s report was that no disciplinary action whatsoever should be taken against any rider on the basis of the LNDD research. It also called upon the WADA and LNDD to submit themselves to an investigation by an outside independent authority.[23]

gideon August 20, 2006 11:29 AM

Landis, like his predecessor Armstrong are dopers. Landis is the dumb one and messed up. Get used to it!!


Anonymous August 31, 2006 3:08 PM


Great article from an angle which I never thought of in regards to sports and drugs. I think the fact that an Athlete’s urine or blood can be stored today and tested in the future with more advanced methods is great for science and sports.

I do believe there is one important point from a legal perspective that wasn’t made. That testing in the future based on an Athletes urine today can only apply for the laws today (not the future). So if Drug A is legal today but illegal in 5 years and it shows up in the Urine taken today that Athlete probably can’t be touched.

However if he used a illegal drug today and it was just can’t traced with current tests then everything you said works out great.


rtlight September 7, 2006 4:20 PM

I recently read the Op-Ed piece entitled “Drugs: Sports’ Prisoner’s Dilemma”. Perhaps I am missing something, but the “prisoner’s dilemma” described seems to be flawed by the implicit assumption that the drug or drugs the athletes might take are assuredly undetectable.

The key statements from the text are:

The doping arms race will continue because of the incentives. It’s a >classic prisoner’s dilemma. Consider two competing athletes: Alice >and Bob. Both Alice and Bob have to individually decide if they are >going to take drugs or not.

Imagine Alice evaluating her two options:
“If Bob doesn’t take any drugs,” she thinks, “then it will be in my best interest to take them. They will give me a performance edge against Bob. I have a better chance of winning.
“Similarly, if Bob takes drugs, it’s also in my interest to agree to take them. At least that way Bob won’t have an advantage over me.
“So even though I have no control over what Bob chooses to do, taking drugs gives me the better outcome, regardless of his action.”

Unfortunately, Bob goes through exactly the same analysis. As a result, they both take performance-enhancing drugs and neither has the advantage over the other. If they could just trust each other,

they could refrain from taking the drugs and maintain the same non-advantage status — without any legal or physical danger. But
competing athletes can’t trust each other, and everyone feels he has to dope — and continues to search out newer and more undetectable drugs — in order to compete. And the arms race continues.

Alternatives for Alice to consider might be:

“If Bob doesn’t take drugs, he will have no illegal advantage over me and I should not take them either, since, even if the drugs improve my performance, if caught, I will be disqualified.”

“If Bob takes drugs, I should not because, if he has a xx% chance of being caught, he will be disqualified and I will win.”

“So, even though I can’t control what Bob chooses to do, and >regardless of what he does, not taking drugs gives me the better outcome.

So, with a sufficiently sensitive and specific assay and the will to apply it, the reasoning has to change and the conclusion presumably would change. I would argue that with sufficient disincentives the doping arms race described would appear to be stoppable.

Anonymous April 22, 2007 9:40 PM

useful information.. i was wondering in repliance if you would be able to supply any information on further aspects on the tour de france..
what i would like to know is.. would less stringent rules surrounding the drug use in the tour de france provide a more level playiong field? When will it go to far? Some drugs are already legal in the tour de france, should all drugs be made legal in this case? would the emphasis really be taken away from the sport? and will this then be an issue of the parmesists?

bb November 21, 2007 8:10 AM

i think drugs change your life. you shouldn’t be allowed to take them as it’s not just your performance in sports that changes it’s in youre normall life. I knew someone who took drugs he’s dead now.
Bridie Banon 14

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