Female Athletes Dope, Too

The lack of doping positives by female athletes might just be a reflection of a flawed testing protocol

Women often benefit more from small doses of steroids. (lagunaguiance/iStock)
Photo: lagunaguiance/iStock

This year, for the first time, the World Anti-Doping Agency released a gender breakdown of PED violations. According to the data, more than four times as many male athletes tested positive for PED than female athletes. But this number seems to suggest that women are far less likely to turn to performance enhancing drugs, which may not be the whole story. 

Measured against relative performances gains, there is actually little basis for the argument that women are less likely to use PEDs. Because women have lower baseline levels, they often benefit more from small doses of steroids, which gives them a greater boost in performance. “For females, the effects of anabolic steroids are greater, and the old files of the German Democratic Republic have shown that their official doping plan targeted females, as those effects had more impact than they did on their male counterparts,” says Olivier de Hon, scientific expert at the Anti-Doping Authority of The Netherlands.


Instead, the differentiation may come down to a flaw in the testing pool. WADA technical documents specifically outline the selection of athletes for testing using, “an all inclusive assessment of risk of a sport or discipline in relation to doping that considers a wide range of risk factors in addition to physiological risk. Such factors may include doping history, financial gain, gender, age, status of the sport within a country, etc.” In other words, testing is focused on those athletes that are deemed statistically more likely to dope. Under this formula, female athletes have been labeled as lower risk, meaning they aren’t tested as often as men, explains Daniel Eichner, president of the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory, a WADA accredited lab. When asked to comment, a WADA representative offered only: "Our statistics do not identify tests by male and female athletes." 

Of course, news that female athletes are doping isn’t a surprise. Just as the IAAF documents indicate that doping among World Championship and Olympic track and field athletes is far more widespread than previously thought, recent high profile positive tests—including three-time Chicago Marathon champion Liliya Shobukhova and three-time Boston Marathon winner Rita Jeptoo—suggest that female athletes may be doping at similar rates to their male counterparts. 

“We know that the win-at-all-costs culture exists in all sports, at all levels, and that the temptation to use performance-enhancing drugs to cheat your competitor isn’t limited by gender,” says Annie Skinner, a spokeswoman for the United States Anti-Doping Association. Which means that as long as there is a desire to win, doping will be continue to be a problem among both men and women. 

Filed To: Running / Fitness / Politics
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