Cost of effective testing exceeds budgets many times over

Whenever long-standing dopers are uncovered the questions that get asked are: “Why weren’t these people caught earlier? Is the testing system broken?” The answer, according to a new paper from researchers in the University of Adelaide’s School of Medical Sciences is yes. The probability of a doping athlete being detected is small, and the cost of effective anti-doping is “economically unfeasible”.

This is something observers of sport have long suspected. Testing and monitoring athletes is expensive, and the economic odds are weighted on the side of the doper because there are so many athletes, and so few testing resources. The research, conducted by PhD student Aaron Hermann and supervised by the paper’s co-author Professor Maciej Henneberg, reveals the scale of the problem in statistical detail.

One chance in 33 of getting caught

One headline finding is startling. The researchers estimate the probability of a doping athlete being caught by a single random test as just 0.029. That’s about 1 in 33 in old money.

“Because anti-doping systems in sport are so unreliable, and the number of tests per year is so low, the likelihood of catching a drug cheat is extremely low,” says Professor Henneberg.

“The average sensitivity of doping tests is about 40%, and the window of opportunity for detecting illicit doping drugs is narrow.”

Of course, athletes are tested more than once, especially those at the top level in any sport. An athlete doping continuously and tested 12 times per year still has only a one in three chance of being caught, and that’s if the tests are random and the athlete takes no evasive countermeasures. But athletes often know when they are going to be tested and there are evasion techniques for random, out-of-competition tests too, as anyone who’s read Tyler Hamilton’s book knows.

“We know that athletes don’t continuously use performance-enhancing drugs; they have increasingly sophisticated techniques to avoid detection,” says Professor Henneberg.

Cost of effective detection: huge

Surely the answer, then, is more testing? The researchers have explored that possibility and concluded that it’s just not affordable.

“In reality, if sports authorities are 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 €29,200 per athlete. And that’s just based on the lowest cost tests currently available, without any of the additional costs,” says Professor Henneberg.

“For example, the annual cost of testing Germany’s 4000 official athletes would exceed €84 million euro. When you consider that the annual revenue for the German National Anti-Doping Association was only €4.5 million for the year ending 2010, that’s a massive shortfall,” he says.

The researchers say that fewer tests would be needed to reliably detect all doping in cycling: just 16 per athlete per year at an approximate anual cost of €9,344 per athlete. There are 3,000 or so registered professional riders worldwide, and many many more top-level amateurs.

To test just the pros to the required level would cost €28 million and that’s for urine tests alone, without allowing for, for example, hiring staff or the travel expenses of out-of-competition testers, or factoring in the higher costs of blood tests to detect transfusions. The UCI’s total revenues in 2011 were just under €22 million and that of its Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation about €5.5 million.

Is everyone doping?

The researchers also use their analytical methods to estimate how many athletes in sports are likely to be doping. If you know how effective the tests are, you can work out the rate of positive tests you’d expect if everyone in a sport were doping, and then compare that with the actual detection rate. The news is not good.

“Baseball can be used as one such example; WADA statistics indicate a 1.99% adverse analytical test result for the sport. If we then use the assumption that there is a 12 hour window of detection on the agents used, a 40% accuracy of testing and doping agents are used intermittently and athletes can predict testing to a point, this allows us to calculate that 100% of baseball athletes would be participating in doping.”

The researchers concede this is “unrealistic” but point out, “the suggestion does remain that the figures [of athletes detected doping] do not truly represent the actual rates of doping.”

Longer bans not the answer

The researchers see the World Anti-Doping Authority’s recent decision to increase the length of doping bans from two to four years as an admission of failure.  “In law enforcement this practice it is usually performed when detection of a wrongdoing is ineffective,” they write. “Some research, however, has claimed that increasing the penalty of a wrongdoing will have no impact on the criminal behaviour.”

Doomed to fail

Professor Hanneman's conclusion is gloomy. The research, he says, “suggests that 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.”

The paper is available to download, so you can read and analyse it for yourself: 
Anti-doping systems in sports are doomed to fail: a probability and cost analysis by Aaron Hermann and Maciej Henneberg.

Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.

Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.

Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.

The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.