Anti-doping systems in sport doomed to fail, says study

Cost of effective testing exceeds budgets many times over

by John Stevenson   July 26, 2013  

Syringe

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.
 

18 user comments

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Interesting and depressing. So whilst they tell us that we can not afford to test enough and that the testing that we do do has less than a 50:50 chance of catching someone that has been doping and that banning people for longer is an admission that we do not have a chance do they actually come up with any suggestions as to how to fix it?

No thought not. Sounds a bit like a Harry Enfield character. "you don't want to do it like that."
Might have been a bit more helpful if the research had come up with some suggestions as how to improve the process.

posted by SevenHills [149 posts]
26th July 2013 - 12:22

4 Likes

A lot of waffle and assumptions here.

With some intelligence behind the testing process the costs and effectiveness is much better.

Top riders get more testing, lower ranked riders less testing. In and out of competition.

UCI has the biological passport to monitor long term trends, surely it would not be too difficult or costly to take en mass samples at major races.

UCI/WADA also work with drug companies to predict new doping trends and appropriate testing methods.

EPO was so prevalent because it was initially undetectable and then given UCI 'approval' with the 50% limit.

Yep, there will always be cheats and dopers, but with a good strategy the testing can be good enough to catch and also deter doping.

posted by seanbolton [140 posts]
26th July 2013 - 12:59

4 Likes

It IS depressing, but unless one fully understands the problem, it's hard to solve/improve the situation. Also, using statistical methods, it should now be possible to determine the effect of improving the sensitivity of tests etc.

. . .thus other solutions to the ubiquitous problem of doping may need to be sought, outside of individual scientific tests.

For cycling, maybe also test the domestiques on the team of the leader in stage races?

I love my bike's picture

posted by I love my bike [41 posts]
26th July 2013 - 13:08

6 Likes

I think trending is the key here and forcing the athlete to take responsibility, i.e. the system Froome said he is following.
Daily checks in to a website for his whereabouts and monthly blood tests to spot anomalies.

We have a much better understanding of a human's capabilities today than even five years ago, we know what tolerances athletes can perform within. I don't believe doping can be so precise as to limit someone's performances to that level and no more.

So, lets not be put off by the naysaying of this report but keep working at it and reviewing procedures to improve anti-doping methods

posted by kitkat [214 posts]
26th July 2013 - 13:08

5 Likes

So anti doping is largely ineffective especially if a team was to pay close attention to details, like, how to beat the doping testing Thinking

posted by Decster [246 posts]
26th July 2013 - 14:06

3 Likes

Interesting. ALL doping in cycling could be reliably tested, BUT it would cost 9344 Euros per athlete. Dare I suggest the Pro Teams pay for their own tests? Taking SKY as an example, they have 27 riders, so the total bill would be 252288 Euros. It sounds a lot, but is only 1.3% of the 2011 Team budget. Isn't that a small price to pay for no more insinuations of doping, ever?

posted by The Rumpo Kid [590 posts]
26th July 2013 - 14:30

6 Likes

I agree with some of the other comments, this report implies that it wouldn't work if you relied on random dope tests. With the UCI sorting longitudinal testing, and the fact that doping cases can be brought about based on 'suspicious values' means that even if you don't have an outright positive then you can be banned.

Having said that though, I haven't read the full paper, so its possible that they have accounted for these factors in the study, but the synopsis here doesn't support that being the case

posted by pdows47 [103 posts]
26th July 2013 - 16:23

3 Likes

I see a business opportunity here for cheaper mass production doping tests.

Another problem: less testing on the lower levels relative to higher levels will result in many doping dependent athletes getting detected as they rise up. Therefore, unless doping tests are given seriously at the highest pre-professional levels, it will not be eradicated from, e.g., the tour de france.

Charlie Horse

posted by ch [102 posts]
26th July 2013 - 18:36

6 Likes

ch wrote:
I see a business opportunity here for cheaper mass production doping tests.

Another problem: less testing on the lower levels relative to higher levels will result in many doping dependent athletes getting detected as they rise up. Therefore, unless doping tests are given seriously at the highest pre-professional levels, it will not be eradicated from, e.g., the tour de france.


That's one way of looking at it. I would suggest that an athlete that wants to rise to a level where the testing is more rigourous would be less likely to dope. They would be unable to repeat the performances that got them noticed in the first place.

posted by The Rumpo Kid [590 posts]
26th July 2013 - 18:54

5 Likes

Stating problems is easy, coming up with solutions is the hard part.

Nowhere in this summary report is there even a hint of what should be done to tackle PEDs. Typical of the sort of waste of time research some people engage in. None of these conclusions are a surprise and all they have done is put a statistical shroud around it to derive some financial numbers.

In fact the comments board here has offered far more value in coming up with ideas on what needs to be done. Perhaps the funding dollars should be directed to the good folk here.

posted by RTB [48 posts]
26th July 2013 - 20:37

5 Likes

+1

onward ever onward

bikecellar's picture

posted by bikecellar [227 posts]
26th July 2013 - 21:22

3 Likes

The Rumpo Kid wrote:
Interesting. ALL doping in cycling could be reliably tested, BUT it would cost 9344 Euros per athlete. Dare I suggest the Pro Teams pay for their own tests? Taking SKY as an example, they have 27 riders, so the total bill would be 252288 Euros. It sounds a lot, but is only 1.3% of the 2011 Team budget. Isn't that a small price to pay for no more insinuations of doping, ever?

i'd say that is a great suggestion, although some other teams would be looking at a much higher %age.

posted by edster99 [187 posts]
26th July 2013 - 21:50

8 Likes

edster99 wrote:
The Rumpo Kid wrote:
Interesting. ALL doping in cycling could be reliably tested, BUT it would cost 9344 Euros per athlete. Dare I suggest the Pro Teams pay for their own tests? Taking SKY as an example, they have 27 riders, so the total bill would be 252288 Euros. It sounds a lot, but is only 1.3% of the 2011 Team budget. Isn't that a small price to pay for no more insinuations of doping, ever?

i'd say that is a great suggestion, although some other teams would be looking at a much higher %age.

Yes, but I don't think it would be ruinously so. A good example of a less flush team would be Sojasun, who got into the TdF on a wild card (and finished last). They would be looking at something like 4% of their annual 5M Euro budget to test all 23 riders.

posted by The Rumpo Kid [590 posts]
26th July 2013 - 22:31

4 Likes

I see what you mean; but I think they would tend to cluster just at the level below strict testing, with some of them floating up and getting culled, because aggressive risk taking is a part of human nature. Look at Floyd Landis; he doped to the eyeballs to win the TdF even though rational thought would have told him he was certain to get caught. He had been with Armstrong and knew the "correct" doping procedure to avoid detection, but was overcome with the desire to ... um ... temporarily occupy the position of first place.

Charlie Horse

posted by ch [102 posts]
26th July 2013 - 23:03

6 Likes

Floyd Landis took a calculated risk he would not be caught. He might have got away with it. What I'm talking about is the cost of implementing a system that would reliably test for all doping. No one would try to cheat it because no one could succeed. And riders in the lower echelons of the sport would have nothing to gain by doping in order to rise up to pro team level, as their doping would be immediately discovered.

posted by The Rumpo Kid [590 posts]
26th July 2013 - 23:26

4 Likes

A system that I think they should look at is "pooled samples". If the cost of testing is too expensive then reduce the number of tests by taking samples from a group of riders and pooling them into one sample, then testing that group. If the group tests positive then you have reasonable grounds to perform tests on individuals. You could do the testing on either Teams at a time or on groups randomly selected...sampling method is up to the statisticians or the organisers.

It's a form of testing that we use regularly in Veterinary Medicine to screen entire herds of cattle for certain diseases. The only downside would be if the tests weren't sensitive enough to pick up particles when you essentially water them down with other riders samples. So it's not flawless but could certainly be investigated in a world where budget is everything.

posted by Twoodius [1 posts]
27th July 2013 - 14:13

7 Likes

Twoodius wrote:
A system that I think they should look at is "pooled samples". If the cost of testing is too expensive then reduce the number of tests by taking samples from a group of riders and pooling them into one sample, then testing that group. If the group tests positive then you have reasonable grounds to perform tests on individuals. You could do the testing on either Teams at a time or on groups randomly selected...sampling method is up to the statisticians or the organisers.

It's a form of testing that we use regularly in Veterinary Medicine to screen entire herds of cattle for certain diseases. The only downside would be if the tests weren't sensitive enough to pick up particles when you essentially water them down with other riders samples. So it's not flawless but could certainly be investigated in a world where budget is everything.

I can see an upside to this. The Omertà would be turned on its head since, if a team tested positive they would all be pointing the finger at each other.

I'm glad people are starting to wake up to the extent of the problem. So when Brailsford and co. say cycling is cleaner than it has ever been there is no proof of this. And the likelihood is not great.

Certainly there needs to be some sort of jeopardy which provokes riders into dobbing each other in. And to also ruin reputations of athletes retrospectively found to be doping. If the benefit to it is nil, then they will certainly think less about turning to dope.

Unfortunately money is still a massive issue, but if the price of turning pro is an annual commission for full scale dope testing you might find that athletes were less keen to spend their money on the dope in the first place, and a certain risk in taking the step to become pro.

People should not forget how important it is that sport be fair and clean.

posted by Colin Peyresourde [1173 posts]
27th July 2013 - 20:06

3 Likes

Insulin pumps check blood glucose levels and then deliver the required doseage. Maybe technology will advance where riders can opt to wear something similar that monitors a week or more worth of blood levels, and have it only 2/3 times a year at random intervals.

posted by TeamCC [146 posts]
28th July 2013 - 15:58

4 Likes