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Doping authorities

Ever since the 1988 Olympics, when the sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol - a word I remember hearing the official spokesman pronounce ultra-carefully, as though she'd never seen it before - it should have been obvious what was going to happen in sports. Thumbnail image for McNab-RingsofSand.jpgAt least some insiders, such as Olympic coach-turned-novelist Tom McNab, managed some foresight. His 1984 novel Rings of Sand imagined a commercial competitor to the Los Angeles Olympics run by a Middle East consortium. While the book's bigger target was the "shamateurism" of the era, when athletes were professional in all but name, what I remember was the influence of drugs.

The recent report from the World Anti-Doping Agency report on Russian athletics makes it absolutely clear that focusing anti-doping efforts on the athletes is useless. In the sport, time, and country the report covers, collusion existed at all levels to ensure that the country's best athletes would dope and would not get caught - and would pay for both privileges. Besides, as Mark Burnley argued at a Skeptics in the Pub meet, few athletes have sufficient education or training to understand the medical and biochemical complexities of a modern doping program. One must look at coaches, trainers, and medical staff.

Here's the report's money quote :

Although the IC report and recommendations are confined to Russia and athletics, the IC wishes to make it clear that, in its considered view, Russia is not the only country, nor athletics the only sport, facing the problem of orchestrated doping in sport.

Well, of course not. We've seen too many other exposures over too long a period - the 1970s East German program, David Walsh's and the US Anti-Doping Authority's investigations of Lance Armstrong - and in too many sports - rugby, baseball, Australian rugby league.

But what do people expect when a multi-trillion dollar global industry that ties up success with nationalism and that finances itself with government subsidies and corporate sponsorship? Whatever motivates you, what keeps you in business is winning and keeping the fans and media engaged.

Despite his belligerent, self-exculpatory tone, baseball player Jose Canseco was correct in his 2005 book, Juiced about the incentives that made the authorities look the other way while 1990s baseball players' muscles expanded like marshmallows in a microwave. There seems to be general agreement that after the 1994 baseball strike, the main attraction that lured an alienated public back into the bleachers was the race between Sammy Sosa and leading players like McGwire, Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez admitted to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the Congressional investigation into Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative.

The BALCO investigation was launched by a whistleblower. Walsh-7deadlysins.jpgLance Armstrong was caught by a combination of investigative journalism and whistle-blowing competitors and teammates. OperaciĆ³n Puerto was a police investigation that began with a whistle-blowing newspaper interview with a cyclist. The message is clear: the people who matter in doping are caught by traditional investigative methods, not by the giant edifice of what we might as well call "anti-doping theater".

In the nearly 30 years since Johnson was caught, the use of performance-enhancing drugs has spread throughout society: in Hollywood, the military, the police, in high schools, and that's leaving aside things like nootropics - "smart pills" - for students. In 2007, Sandro Donati Sandro Donati estimated the number of people involved in doping worldwide at 31 million. It can't have shrunk since then.

The essential problem: no matter what they say when it happens, no one in sports can possibly want the top names caught. This is especially true in individual sports, where even "clean" athletes know their own income will suffer in the exposure of an athlete whose presence at the top of the game attracts large sponsorships and sells out stadiums. Tiger Woods' downfall was estimated to have cost golf $15 billion. Everyone relies on these top names: sports federations, both national and international, coaches, advertisers, promoters, family members who have often made substantial sacrifices, and, as Donati wrote in the report referenced above, organized crime

So: what is the purpose of anti-doping efforts? If it was to make sports look good for mass consumption, they succeeded in the short-term and failed in the medium-term. If it was to end doping...they've failed even more comprehensively. If you wanted to redesign the system to make it work, how would you create incentives?

We now know that Johnson won the dirtiest race in history - that is, only one of Johnson's top competitors had not failed a drug test. In 1984, McNab could still create a young athlete character who, accused by a watchful expert, would never do it again. Today, it's clearer that there is no one in sports in whose interests are served by eliminating doping. There are some whose interests are served by catching a few dopers, but that's not the same thing. For the former, the incentives are all wrong. If you were building anti-doping as a security system - which is what it is - you would start there.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter. Unfortunately, to deter spam bots we've had to disable comments on this blog.


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