Testing times for Sochi drug cheats

‘The most famous game of all is the prisoner’s dilemma, and it’s a natural explanation for why athletes take drugs despite the risks’

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Testing for performance-enhancing drugs was first introduced by the International Olympic Committee not at a summer games but at the 1968 Winter Olympics. That might seem odd – the winter games aren’t normally associated with performance-enhancing drugs. Yet a dispassionate economic analysis suggests that this disconnection between testing regime and drug prevalence can hardly be a surprise.

The ideal economic tool for thinking about performance-enhancing drugs is game theory, a mathematical approach to understanding co-operation and competition. The most famous game of all is the prisoner’s dilemma, and it’s a natural explanation for why athletes take drugs despite the risks.

The essence of the prisoner’s dilemma in doping is that, regardless of what other competitors do, each individual competitor stands to benefit from taking the drugs – either by ensuring an advantage over a clean field or avoiding disadvantage compared with cheating rivals. And so everyone takes performance-enhancing drugs, even though everyone would prefer a situation where the entire field was honest.

Naturally, sporting authorities wish to change the incentives and so they test athletes and hand out bans to those who break the rules. One might think that such tests largely resolve the prisoner’s dilemma. But an analysis published last year by three economists, Berno Buechel, Eike Emrich and Stefanie Pohlkamp, suggests otherwise.

Game theory is a clever tool but the risk is that the theorist misses some bigger game. Buechel and colleagues argue that the bigger game in this case isn’t just between the athletes and the sporting authorities, but involves sports fans. The sad truth is that sports fans aren’t necessarily providing the right incentives.

Fans, understandably, do not like drug scandals: news that another sprinter has been caught taking steroids or another cyclist has been found using the blood-enhancer EPO does nothing to enhance the reputation of these sports. That typically means lower box-office takings, smaller broadcast revenues and less money from sponsors.

But what constitutes a drug “scandal”? It’s not the doping itself: that’s the offence, not the scandal. The scandal doesn’t break until the offence becomes public knowledge – that is, when the drug-taking coincides with an effective drug test. What, then, is the incentive for sports administrators to beef up their drug tests? The immediate impact will be more scandals, fewer spectators and fewer sponsors.

Of course, a totally foolproof drug-testing regime would solve this problem because nobody would cheat if detection and punishment were guaranteed. But even if such a regime were possible on some plausible budget, the costs of getting there might be prohibitive. Only after a huge scandal such as the discovery of industrialised cheating in the Tour de France do the authorities have an opportunity to improve their testing programmes.

This is a problem that may never be fully resolved. But the drug-testing regime at the Sochi Olympics has had two clever features. First, samples are being kept for 10 years. The usual reason given for this is that it may allow new and improved detection methods to catch cheats after the event, but there is nice side benefit: sporting authorities have more incentive to catch historical cheats than current cheats, because doing so presents an attractive image of a sport that is making progress.

Second, the IOC took great pains to describe the increased numbers of drug tests that would be conducted during the games – up by more than 14 per cent from the tests during the Vancouver Winter Olympics. We’re invited not to think of the failed drugs tests but all the tests that have passed. The real target for such announcements is not the athlete. It’s the sports fan.

“The Undercover Economist Strikes Back”, by Tim Harford, is published by Little, Brown

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