Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell. Both have tested positive for banned substances.
Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell. Both have tested positive for banned substances.

The Real Reason Athletes Dope

What if we're blaming the wrong people for doping? A new look into why athletes choose to dope raises serious questions about the fight against drugs in sport.

Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell. Both have tested positive for banned substances.

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It’s been a tough month for dopers—in all sports. Last week, Alex Rodriguez was suspended for 200 games based on “non-analytic” evidence of doping, as part of the “Biogenesis” scandal in south Florida.  His suspension is the longest doping suspension in major league history.

It follows on the heels of continued suspicion about the dominating win of Chris Froome at the Tour de France and the suspension last month of three top sprinters (including Tyson Gay). Like Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones, Rodriguez “passed” any number of drug tests. And while Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell eventually tested positive, they both claim they were given adulterated supplements.

How can we explain the behavior of professional athletes? If anti-doping agencies are catching the big names, why do athletes continue to dope?

Game Theory
The answer may be found in game theory, a discipline that uses models of decision making to understand the actions of people under varying circumstances. Central to the theory is the idea that “players” use strategies and make choice to achieve their optimal outcomes.

Game theory can be used to study all sorts of behavior, and as the Economist highlighted several weeks ago, these same principles can be applied to sport. Athletes are in a game with one another—with each player vying to earn the highest salary and best result. If testing and enforcement are lax, the risk of getting beat by a doper can be larger than the risk of getting caught. In other words, doping becomes the optimal strategy for winning the money game.

The Owner’s Game(s)
Athletes aren’t just competing against one another. They’re in a game with the authorities and owners. And things go a step further: The authorities are in a game with the fans. Incredible performances increase fan interest.

A cynic might argue that the owners want the appearance of compliance while more than a truly clean and potentially more boring game. Perhaps their best strategy is to wink at performances by juiced record-setters. This charge has been leveled at Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig who has been accused of turning a blind eye during the Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds homerun derby era after the 1994-95 baseball strike.  

The same argument runs through the Lance Armstrong case. Countless journalists and experts have argued that the cycling authorities knew what was going on but were more than happy to have Lance win year after to year to “grow” the interest in their sport in the U.S., which was a relatively untapped market compared to Europe.

On the other end, some people think that things have gotten so bad in track and field that the recent history of doping has caused the popularity of that sport to head off the cliff, forcing the authorities to crack down to reestablish the sport’s credibility.

The Money Game
The other specific point about the Yankees is that they signed Rodriguez to a huge long-term contract. Perhaps they are happy to see him suspended—so they can “head in a different direction” with newfound money?

In a sort of parallel way, Lance’s defense in the whistleblower lawsuit is that his sponsors either did or should have known he was doping. If they really did know he was doping but only dropped him when he became toxic, it supports the idea that doping isn’t the enemy—just obvious cheating that undermines the appearance of credibility.  Is it about clean competition of brand protection?


The Doping Arms Race
Beyond the money, two other factors enter the analysis: The length of suspension and the lack of transparency. While Armstrong was forced to contend with WADA rules and a lifetime ban, the penalties for getting caught in the NFL and MLB are pretty light and the testing is beatable on many levels.

Coupled with the fact that the tests remain beatable, the risk benefit analysis becomes pretty obvious and the deterrent element of testing and enforcement is blunted. For example, a juiced player can put up big numbers and sign a big contract, dope, and only face a 50 game suspension, at worst.  In other words gamble 30 percent of this year’s pay for a major multi-year jackpot down the road. This makes even more sense when think that most careers are over by age 35 and almost all are over by age 40.

Doping Disarmament
Transparency is a key part of disarmament in military conflicts. Not surprisingly, it also plays into sports.  Right now there is a lot of yapping now about how frequently or infrequently Jamaican sprinters are being tested. If you think your competitors are dirty, doping becomes a logical move. But transparency about who is being tested would let everyone see if the stars are, in fact, being protected.

Publically posting test results would also help with crowd-sourcing high normal values, tests that are technically clean but highly suspicious, and I bet there are plenty. The positive rate ranges between one and three percent for many sports, and the line is often drawn liberally enough to allow cheaters to slip through.

Not surprisingly, cultural forces also enter the equation. When Jane or Joe six-pack can essentially get drive-through hormone treatment to buff themselves up, why not ballplayers? Even students are “doping” on college campuses with ADHD drugs. Sports doping is not happening in a cultural vacuum. Are athletes any different than students looking to over-perform in high-stakes testing—to land a job in a high-paying career track?

Suspend Bud Selig?
Rodriguez (like Lance Armstrong or any doper) is not a person I want to defend.  However, he is just one dishonest cog in the machinery of denial. His decision to dope directly connects with the blind eye turned by baseball’s leadership.

And Selig is not alone. Starting with cycling, you can make the same case for the authorities and owners of other big money sports as well. Does anyone really believe that the hard-nosed billionaire baseball owners did not know what was going on.

Are they cracking down now because they finally woke up or because their checkbooks are talking?

Michael J. Joyner, M.D., is a physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic and a leading voice in the world of exercise physiology. Over the last 25+ years, he's published 100s of studies many of which have focused on how humans respond to exercise. Dr. Joyner also writes atHuman Limits. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.