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 Wired.com.