Identifying doping cheats in sport pointless, say researchers

The probability of detecting sports people who take performance-enhancing drugs is so low, and the cost of testing is so high, that sports authorities cannot hope to prevent cheating, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Adelaide collected data from around the world of positive results from doping tests. They assessed the sensitivity and frequency of testing across 93 different sports and found the anti-doping systems were so unreliable and the number of tests per year so low, that the likelihood of catching a drug cheat was highly unlikely.

Despite testing, doping in sports now seemed to be more widespread than ever, the researchers said. If an athlete was tested 12 times a year, the probability of detection in the case of continuous doping was only 33%.

But athletes do not continuously take performance-enhancing drugs and instead use increasingly sophisticated techniques to avoid detection, so the probability of detection falls even further.

The study was undertaken by Professor Maciej Henneberg from the university’s school of medical sciences, who supervised PhD student Aaron Hermann who did the calculations.

Not economically viable

The researchers said for drug-testing to be completely effective, it would not be economically viable.

If sports authorities were to have a 100% chance of detecting drug cheats, each of the world's athletes would need to be tested up to 50 times a year at a cost of at least US$25,000 per athlete – based on the lowest-cost tests currently available, without any of the additional expenses.

Henneberg said the total cost per year for all athletes to be effectively tested would be astronomical. Using German data, the researchers calculated that the annual cost of testing Germany's 4,000 official athletes would exceed €84 million (US$120 million) a year.

“When you consider that the annual revenue for the German National Anti-doping Association was only €4.5 million in 2010, that's a massive shortfall," he said. "This suggests the current system of anti-doping testing is inadequate to eliminate doping.

“It appears that anti-doping policies are in place more for perception, to show that the right thing is being done. In practice, based on these estimates, the anti-doping system is doomed to fail.”

In a paper published in Archives des Science in Geneva , the researchers describe how they used official data from around the world on positive results from doping tests.

They determined the sensitivity and frequency of testing in 93 categories of sport and combined these with estimates of their frequency, “window of detectability and test predictability”, to calculate the likelihood of detecting drug-taking.

Odds of not being detected "quite good"

Based on the assumption of an average of 12 tests a year, the research concluded the detection rate would be about 34% or odds of 3:1, indicating there was a 66% chance of not being detected – “quite good odds for someone willing to take a risk”.

“This calculation is based on an assumption that tests are done completely randomly. Where the exact date of a test is predictable, the risk of detection would decline even further, even with 12 tests per year. This makes the risk potentially psychologically acceptable to the ‘doper’,” the researchers write.

They argue that, based on current statistics, it would seem the likelihood of being caught doping is somewhere between 0.1% and 10% in a single test.

"The fact that tests are not working well is illustrated by the World Anti-doping Agency’s recent decision to increase the length of doping bans from two to four years with the aim of increasing the deterrent effect of the penalty.”

The researchers point out that in law enforcement, this is usually done when detection of a wrongdoing is ineffective. Some research, however, has claimed that increasing the penalty of a wrongdoing has no impact on criminal behaviour.

“The primary conclusion that can be drawn from this research is that the current system of anti-doping is, given the realities of the sporting world, ineffective at reaching the desired goals, assuming the goals of the system are elimination of doping.

“It would seem that should the current system of anti-doping remain, significant increases would need to be made in the testing levels; this in turn would require a significant increase in revenue for anti-doping collection and testing.

“This may be economically impossible and thus other solutions to the ubiquitous problem of doping may need to be sought, outside of individual scientific tests.”