Doping in Professional Sports

I updated a 2006 essay of mine on the security issues around sports doping.

Posted on October 30, 2012 at 12:57 PM • 20 Comments


echOctober 30, 2012 1:24 PM

The forefront of this will be gene doping. A sidebar to an article in SciAm on Gene Doping in 2004 noted that the 2008 Olympics were probably the last one in which one could be pretty sure that no gene doping of athletes had taken place.

The tests for gene doping seem to rely on detection of the doping agent, which may not work for some vectors. Tissue biopsy can be definitive, but difficult to perform for obvious reasons.

Your prisoner's dilemma argument is magnified because in some cases, Alice has no choice in doping. She lives in a country with a totalitarian government that places high value on Olympic medals.

ewnOctober 30, 2012 1:44 PM

The one thing you didn't touch on was teams rather than individuals. It's not really Alice or Bob's choice any more. If they want to play in the game, they've got to join the right team. And to get on the right team, they have to be willing to do what the team decides is best for the team. And as a money-making corporate sponsor seeking machine, there's even less incentive to play clean.

CraigOctober 30, 2012 1:45 PM

This isn't just a practical matter, as your Prisoner's Dilemma model describes. It also has to do with personal integrity and the meaning of achievement in sports. If you can only win by cheating, then you aren't really winning at all because you're not playing the game honestly. And if your achievements are only possible due to doping, then they're worthless. The Six Million Dollar Man would not have been allowed to compete in the Olympics, because what he can do is all about the technology implanted in his body, not about his natural abilities or unaided skills. Doping is the same sort of thing.

If, on the other hand, you just want to be rich and famous and don't care what you have to do to get it (or how many people hate you after your cheating is found out), then the Prisoner's Dilemma is applicable.

CrankyRobOctober 30, 2012 2:53 PM

Craig, the six million dollar man just competed in the summer Olympics (the runner with the blades replacing his lower legs); this same runner then accused another of cheating (in a venue for the handicapped) since the other was using blades that were slightly longer than allowed.
Also note that the tour de France sanctioning body not only took away Lance's seven championships but has left those titles blank since all of the podium finishers were also taking drugs.
The illusion of honesty in sports is overrated, a pragmatic approach is to apply all of the current rules and tests equally to all competitors, and don't apply a brand new test to yesterday's winners. Otherwise you end up with the bicycling mess of disqualifying virtually everyone in the last ten years.

JohnstonOctober 30, 2012 4:09 PM

The "Prisoner's Dilemna" logic fails to address a few points known by people who closely follow pro cycling. (I mention pro cycling because it's one of the only sports that highly tests and punishes athletes, and that Lance Armstrong's photo was used in the article.)

1. Retesting of old samples using new detection methods (as noted in the article).

2. The "Biological Passport" used in pro cycling, which monitors blood values for unexpected and difficult to fake markers. Armstrong's suspicious 2009 Tour samples (contrasted with normal ones from the Giro) were discussed publicly at the time, and contributed to his recent downfall. The Biological Passport is used both to bring cases and also to target individual cyclists for increased testing, as well as to perform retro-active re-testing of old samples.

3. The fact that doping doctors (with whom a pro cyclist must communicate and/or meet) are under watch. Their phones are tapped, bank accounts monitored (oops Frank Schleck), and physical movements recorded in order to build a case. They even bugged Michele Ferrari's camper and overheard doping conversations had with athletes. Most doping cases in cycling have been uncovered by police investigation and not drug testing. Operation Puerto is one of many examples.

4. The fact that inconsistent results breed suspicion and therefore increased testing and scrutiny.

5. Urine and blood samples that pass tests but are "suspicious" can lead to increased scrutiny, such as your hotel room or family vehicle getting searched (Johnny Schleck), or known associates (Ivan Basso's sister) being banned from attending races.

6. The fact that Alice may not want to do drugs, because when Bob gets nailed, he might name Alice and provide evidence to get a reduced sentence. This has happened to lots of people such as Jeannie Longo, who has posted the most unbelievable results in the history of professional sport: at age 53, she's still performing at the top level. Her husband (who is not a competitive athlete) was busted for buying EPO after a former EPO dealer was busted and came clean. Now AFLD is finally taking her case seriously and following her around like they should have been doing for the last 15+ years. And she's no longer winning. :-)

The result of all this is, instead of institutionalized doping in teams performed by medical doctors, you get edge cases of idiots like Riccardo Ricco storing his own blood in his refridgerator at home, getting a kidney infection, almost dying, and getting banned.

aaaaOctober 30, 2012 4:34 PM

@CrankyRob The bicycling at a time was a mess whether they have or have not official winner for those years. It is cleaner and more honest to say: "it was a mess and results do not count".

Not applying new tests on old samples is nothing more than closing your eyes. The rules are still broken, you just decided to pretend that you do not know. The rules said "EPO is not allowed". They did not said "EPO is allowed unless we catch you".

Applying new tests on old samples on the other hand makes doping more risky. It changes the game: it is not about whether they catch me now anymore. Suddenly it is about whether they will be able to catch you in the next 15 years.

John HardinOctober 30, 2012 5:03 PM

I wonder when the sports and athletic regulatory bodies will wake up and simply split things into two leagues: "enhanced" and "natural"?

John David GaltOctober 30, 2012 7:07 PM

For all the manufactured hysteria, I believe that the vast majority of the public (1) simply doesn't care about the dangers of doping (at least some of which are the result of the rules driving users from safer to less safe drugs and methods), and (2) doesn't see anything wrong with the practice. Athletic leagues should simply have the guts (and enough independence from governments) to lift the bans and let the players do what they want.

After all, it's not as though pro sports are safe even without drugs. Pro football players commonly die in their 40s or 50s just from the overexertion. If the law isn't going to let them take the (relatively) small added risk of doping, they might as well ban the sport entirely. It would save lives.

GodelOctober 30, 2012 7:18 PM


An Australian biomechanist did an analysis of the "Blade Runner" and found that the blades do not give an advantage over a normal human runner.

Darryl DaughertyOctober 30, 2012 9:34 PM

The security aspect of doping also needs to include the risk of athletes blackmailed into manipulating results to avoid exposure.

Consider an active Lance Armstrong being manipulated into losing a key stage or race to avoid a disclosure that could result in a life-time ban.

Consider a Melky Cabrera situation -- absent the MLB testing regime -- where a disclosure of doping would drop the value of his next contract from $10M per year to $2M and think how vulnerable to manipulation his athletic performance could become.

I think it's safe to say that organized crime would welcome a chance to use privileged information to leverage payouts in sports books.

Clive RobinsonOctober 31, 2012 2:14 AM

@ Bruce,

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 fans want to see beefy linebackers, powerful sluggers, and lightning-fast sprinters. So, with a wink and a nod, American enforcers only test for the easy stuff.

This is perhaps the interesting point of what sport is to those that watch it (rather than actualy participate). Is it a "performance art" or a "natural art". If it is a "performance art" then dopping is no more unacceptable that the touched up images of super models in the varios fashion and other magazines, or those who undergo cosmetic surgery from botox injection through to having bones restructured to lengthen legs etc.

We already distinguish between amateur and professional sports persons (although the bounderies are nolonger as clear cut as they once were). Why not extend the proffessional category to Prof-unenhanced and Prof-enhanced.

Perhaps sports fans would have no objection perhaps they would.

But at the end of the day perhaps society should be asking questions of it's self and the "cult of image".

Because beyond a certain point talent is not something you can aquire with just practice and determination it is the luck of your genetics and thus who your ancestors chose to mate with.

Australia had a political will some years ago to become a better nation at sport, children from a very early age were tested and directed towards certain sports it was not realy their choice but a political one. We currently see China doing similar things but to the point the athletes are issolated from the outside world and they are not informed when close family members die. Prior to these events Eastern Block nations likewise for political reasons pushed doping science forwards and now it's continued not so much for National Gain but Personal or Team Gain.

But even the sport organisers are not beyond dishonest behaviour. Think back to the Olympics in South Korea, the host nation had no medals until a boxing medal was given, ask any person who is a serious boxing fan to look at the fight and say who was realy the winner?

I think it is a case of societal delusion, otherwise how do you explain that for some reason because the gain is "politicaly" inspired it's acceptable, but when it's "personal" choice it's not?

It's a question that has long troubled me, I used to participate in a number of sports when I was younger some of them rather more cerebral than physical and thus requiring more mental than physical skill. I was in some cases moderatly successful, but when I stoped participating I did not carry on as a spectator. One of the reasons I stopped participating was that people were starting to talk about "mental doping" where by you would use natural upers and downers to control when you were at mental peek performance.

I was reminded of this the other day when a news item mentioned that the lack luster performance of a football (soccer) team was due to the fact that the match had been postponed by 24hours. And that the team had insufficient sleep because they had all been taking a stimulant (ProPluss) prior to the original match time.

Thus you have to ask yourself a couple of questions. The first being the after match behaviour which we see happen which occasional gets quite bad press, is this due to natural exuberance or the coming down from the use of stimulants? The second and perhaps more important is we now have drugs that increase oxygen uptake in the brain etc and are said to enhance mental ability should we ban their use in some or all sports?

Richard KirbyOctober 31, 2012 4:10 AM


The Blades may not have given an advantage this Olympics, but what about 4 years time in Brasil? Technology moves on at a much faster rate than human leg evolution.

It was a slippery slope and should not IMO have been allowed.


CrankyRobOctober 31, 2012 7:33 AM


This year, an Australian biomechanist analysis , may have shown that the blades did not give any advantage, but what happens when someone else, performing a better analysis, can demonstrate that the blades actually gave an advantage? Should the sanctioning body then disqualify the blade-runner?

@aaaa Regarding "Not applying new tests on old samples is nothing more than closing your eyes."
The problem with applying new tests on old samples is sorting out the impact of the rules violations. The tests have to be applied to all participants equally and then the rules group has to decide the correct finishing order.

Applying updated athletic-competition rules after the event is both bad for the sport and is unfair to everyone who competed.

kingsnakeOctober 31, 2012 9:34 AM

Allowing Oscar Pistorious to compete with artificial enhancements is a slippery slope that will eventually lead to some athletes opting for selective body part removal in order to enhance their performance. Mark my words, it *will* happen.

aaaaOctober 31, 2012 5:22 PM

@CrankyRob The problem is that too many people on first 10 positions have already been found doping. Others are strongly suspect. Armstrong was sort of "last men standing".

You could chose one of those suspect and risk yet another medal reassignment (they already did it couple of times) or go deep down into peleton to find someone on 25th place insignificant enough to store his samples. Or, you can admit that the whole period was an ugly mess.

"Applying updated athletic-competition rules after the event is both bad for the sport and is unfair to everyone who competed."

I fully agree with that. But new rules and new tests are two different things. The rules back then did not allowed certain substances, but they have not been able to tests for them accurately. New tests measure whether old rules have been broken back then.

suferickNovember 1, 2012 5:17 AM

The Alain Baxter example does not illustrate a false positive, since the test correctly identified a banned substance (which had no stimulant effect), but differences in versions of the inhaler, since the European version does not contain methamphetamine. A case of 'RTFL'.

In my youth, a while ago now, I was a sprinter, and reaction time from the gun is an important factor. I experimented with cutting out caffeine for a week or so before a race (a sore trial for a student) and then reintroducing it the day before competition. It certainly made me jumpy, but I don;t know if it qualified as 'mental doping'.

Clive RobinsonNovember 1, 2012 11:52 AM

@ suferick,

It certainly made me jumpy, but don;t know if it qualified as 'mental doping'

I guess it depends on your viewpoint and if it improved your performance or not.

It's a bit like asking if a regular smoker is a drug addict or not...

What concernd me however is that even back then a third of a century ago it was looked on as a way to use chemicals to get a competative edge, which is what anti-doping is supposed to stop.

Arguably caffeine in strong coffee is a natural part of a beverage, in the same way as it is (to a much lesser extent) in tea which also contains natural antibiotics and some antivirals.

At one point the WADA baned the use of caffeine pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, even though all three are readily available in drink for from the brewing of leaves or berries of plants in hot water.

However the WADA later relented on both caffeine and pseudoephedrine (it was rumourd that the first was due to major "sponsorhip preasure" from certain well known soft drink manufactures and fast food companies that the IOC is reliant on for income).

It is also fairly well known that both ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are sufficiently similar to well known "party drugs" and many students believe that they help them study much more effectivly than caffeine.

The simple fact is however that all three can and will kill people sometimes in surprisingly small doses. It is known for instance that ephedrines effect on people is very dependent on other factors such as hydration and environmental temprature, so what has been a (semi) safe does for an individual one day at home in the temperate north could at the same level kill them just a few days later whilst partying on holiday in the sun...

Any way I saw the use of the non natural forms of these stimulants as the thin edge of the wedge, and mental doping is hear to stay with other entirely non natural manufactured drugs designed to be used for the likes of altzihmers sufferes.

Doug CoulterNovember 1, 2012 6:13 PM

I really like the idea of simply separating things into "on the natch" and "no holds barred". Seems to solve most of the issues, at least as far as a non competitor's point of view goes.

I've been in various other types of competitions where there are classes - from sailboat racing to competitive shooting. Separation works well in those, and makes it more about skill than tricks.

Michael CNovember 2, 2012 9:46 AM

re Doug Couler "I really like the idea of simply separating things into "on the natch" and "no holds barred". Seems to solve most of the issues, at least as far as a non competitor's point of view goes.

I've been in various other types of competitions where there are classes - from sailboat racing to competitive shooting. Separation works well in those, and makes it more about skill than tricks."

You still end up with the issue of trying to enforce "no drug use" in the "natch" games. You will still end up trying to test all the athletes, creating new drug tests for whatever the latest performance enhancing drug is. You will still end up with controversy.

Plus, there is not enough room for dual Olympic games, dual Major League sports and dual Tour de whatevers. The way we are going is likely the way it will be.

In a sailing race, the boat can be easily inspected to ensure that sails and hulls conform to the rules. Drug use is way too complicated to enforce effectively.

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