A new study has found that doping in track and field athletes might be much more pervasive than the results of doping tests indicate. An article published today in the New York Times says that a group of researchers assembled by the World Anti-Doping Agency found that "an estimated 29 percent of the athletes at the 2011 world championships and 45 percent of the athletes at the 2011 Pan-Arab Games said in anonymous surveys that they had doped in the past year."
The article points out that that compares to a 2% positive rate in doping tests conducted by WADA.
The authors of the study brought the results to the New York Times after WADA requested they not be immediately released before review by the International Association of Athletics Federations. The researchers countered that their methods were sound and that the data could stand on its own.
Here's how the survey was conducted:
Athletes at the events answered questions on tablet computers and were asked initially to think of a birthday, either their own or that of someone close to them. Then, depending on the date of the birthday, they were instructed to answer one of two questions that appeared on the same screen: one asked if the birthday fell sometime between January and June, and the other asked, “Have you knowingly violated anti-doping regulations by using a prohibited substance or method in the past 12 months?”
The most remarkable conclusion was that the researchers believe the survey format was likely to produce fewer admissions to doping than reality.
The researchers noted that not every athlete participated, and those who did could have lied on the questionnaire, or chosen to answer the birthday question. They concluded that their results, which found that nearly a third of the athletes at the world championships and nearly half at the Pan-Arab Games had doped in the past year, probably underestimated the reality. [Editor's emphasis (!)]
For more on the pervasiveness of doping in competitive sports, read Andrew Tilin's account of becoming a doping lab rat.