The economics of doping – why it pays to cheat

By: Nick van der Leek

There is no question, our attitudes to doping are schizophrenic. While we deplore elite athletes who use performance enhancers, most people can’t start their day without one. One commercial company, Nestlé sees growth particularly in nutritional products that emphasise health, well-being and fitness.  Others go a step further. The maker of Creatine brag on its product labels that users of the product have previously won Olympic gold. Given society’s approach to nutrition and obsessions with appearances (from appetite suppressants used by teenagers to plastic surgery across the spectrum), it’s hardly surprising that doping is on the rise. ASA president James Evans notes skyrocketing numbers of positive tests amongst SA athletes of late. “I don’t know what’s going on,” Evans said in October 2012, “but doping in South African athletics is becoming a serious problem.”


For the man in the street, Lance Armstrong has become doping’s poster boy, and he’s likely to be in court for the foreseeable future, warding off claims to his ill-gotten gains. At the end of the process, at bears noting, he’s likely to be up on the whole deal. And this begs the question, is cheating worth it?


The idea of cheating in order to bear the winner’s laurels has been with us from the beginning. The Greeks, after all, tried magic potions and ate exotic meats to boost their efforts. Roman gladiators in 100AD were completely doped up to guarantee spirited and bloody entertainment to crowds 60 000 strong. Jump forward 1860 years to the Rome Games of 1960. A Danish cyclist falls off his bicycle and dies. An amphetamine is discovered in his blood, and at the same time, the world wakes up to endemic drug use. While East Germany ramped up its performance drug industry, other federations began banning performance enhancing substances, and the IOC did the same in 1967. And the doping nightmare (South Africa’s Olympic Team doctor Louis Holtzhausen calls it “a mess”) still continues today.


The modern athlete finds himself in a prisoner’s dilemma when faced with the decision to dope.  Because there is so little transparency, the athlete can’t be sure whether rivals are doping, and if they are, to what extent. The stakes are high, make no mistake. Holzhausen describes what it feels like at the Olympic Games, to be surrounded by the finest athletes in the world. “It’s inspiring, and the desire to win becomes almost quixotic. At the Olympics it all comes down to one day, and then one moment. Years of training distilled into one perfect performance.” In triathlete Kate Roberts’s case, says Holtzhausen, a great race was marred by an Australian falling in front of her. Roberts got up and fought her way back in the race, but despite a credible 22nd place, it was a devastating result after a decade of pain-filled preparation. “These athletes’ entire lives are consumed by training,” Holtzhausen reiterates.


Yes, we live in a highly competitive performance-orientated society, it’s a jungle where survival of the fittest (and fastest and smartest) still applies. In short, the winner takes all.  For the rest of the pack, it can mean heartbreak, as it was this year for Roberts. The winner-takes-it-all economy applies just as much to sponsors, broadcasters, coaches, clubs, federations etc.  Another aspect that is poorly understood is that incomes in sport are extremely unequal.  If we are talking about Gini coefficients, sport as a business has some of the most uneven distributions of incentives. The difference between first and second, particularly in swimming and athletics, is enormous.  In tennis and cycling, somewhat less so, but it is nevertheless significant. While the sport industry is a forest filled with scenarios, three timbers clearly emerge:


  1. Winning is vital to the success of a professional athlete.
  2. Doping makes winning a lot easier (and especially so if no one else is).
  3. If everyone is doping, to refrain from doping risks absolute failure.


If the last point seems silly, consider Cameron van der Burgh’s admission during his world record-breaking swim, where he made as many as three illegal kicks during his breaststroke event.  He explained that since everyone was doing it (cheating), he would be wasting his time if he did not.  But’s Tejvan Pettinger argues that doping doesn’t create more winners. “It just means,” he writes, “that their take-home prize money is significantly less because they have to spend so much on dope to… win. If you took away doping,” Pettinger argues, “they wouldn’t have to lie, sponsors would be more willing to put money in the sport, fans would be less cynical” and in terms of the competitors themselves “their health would be better” and “there would be the same number of winners.” Pettinger is clearly on to something when he calls dope-free sport “a welfare gain for everyone involved (except the dodgy... doctors who could charge $100 000 a year for their services).”

Given the choice of a culture of doping, and a dope-free environment, it makes sense to go for the latter, because the former, as Pettinger asserts, is “dangerous, immoral and makes them worse off”.

Ironically, it appears that as with cheating, doping seems to happen because of a perception that “everyone’s doing it”, which may well become a self-fulfilling perception.  Pettinger nails it when he says that “the tragedy of doping in cycling is that it is a classic case of market failure. Nearly every cyclist is better off without dope. The sport would be better off and spectators and fans would be much happier.” So why do they do it? Pettinger says that since detection is so difficult, “there has always been a strong financial incentive to follow what everyone else is doing.” Even when athletes are banned (as in Lance’s case) career earnings remain. To wipe out doping overnight is easy - a simple addition to legislation that banned athletes be fined all their earnings, effectively bankrupting them, would balance the risk with the reward. But the way the system stands, a young athlete can maximise earnings by turning to dope.  Alexander Vinokourov, who won Olympic gold in cycling this year, was previously caught, banned, and then unbanned. He’s one of many athletes who demonstrate that the rewards far outweigh the risks.


A cyclist receives medical attention on the go

Technological doping is a whole separate can of worms, including the use of speedsuits, interactive clothing (filled with sensors) and increasingly, artificial limbs. Would Oscar Pistorius be on the cover of GQ magazine if he was an able-bodied athlete? In Pistorius’s case it’s the very fact that he’s able to enhance his performance in such spectacular fashion that has given him his celebrity status. But can Niké really say Oscar’s athletic achievements are more authentic than Lance’s?

The incontrovertible reality then is this: if the athlete ignores health and moral aspects, doping makes absolute economic sense.  Not only is it more cost effective to enhance performance, performance can be enhanced rapidly, and the scale and scope of those biological improvements are impressive. Because sport is a business, the number of stakeholders can be enormous, and the pressure to win overpowering.  One question that has not been raised, is whether Lance Armstrong’s sponsors, especially Niké (which all officially stand for authentic athletic performance) knew whether their star was doping? In general, do sponsors push their athletes to dope? The likely answer is yes, especially when one considers the history of doping, and the financial windfalls for the winner and, by implication, the winning sponsor. It’s impossible not to see a corporate animal equally eager and greedy for profits as motivated as the athletes that represent them (if not more so). Sometimes, often, the allure and glitter of gold go beyond the corporate level and can even underpin national prestige. In the Sixties, East Germany turned doping into a shadow industry (making Lance’s programme a Mickey Mouse operation by comparison). What if the Boks could gain an edge over the All Blacks simply by taking a particular supplement, would South Africans oppose this?


But schizophrenia aside, something very disturbing is happening, both abroad and on home soil. Between April 2011 and June 2012 the SA Institute for Drug Free Sport reported 55 doping violations. Most of these were for anabolic steroids (18 cases), followed by stimulants (16 cases) according to SAIDS CEO Khalid Galant. Cannabinoids (13 cases), diuretics (four) and glucocorticosteroids (three) made up the balance.

According to SAIDS, the numbers jumped from 19 in 2009/2010 to more than 50 recently. It seems their “I Play Fair, Say No to Doping” campaign is struggling to contend with the doping economy.

In fact, Khalid Galant says: “In South Africa, we have taken note that our athletes are becoming more litigious and are employing legal tactics in efforts to either delay or thwart the anti-doping legal process. Many athletes threaten us with lawsuits in the hope that the doping charges will be dropped.”

An interesting case of this is the Northern Cape’s long distance champion, Gert Thys. A world champion calibre athlete, Thys has an impressive pedigree.  He sports top six finishes, including at the IAAF World Championships in the late Nineties.  In East Asia, Thys won the Seoul International Marathon three times between 2003 and 2006. However, a positive dope test after his 2006 win saw him disqualified for allegedly using the banned steroid norandrosterone. What followed was six years of court cases in SA and Switzerland. Despite a May 2010 finding by Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court, Thys argued that one technician had analysed both his samples, and since this was a breach of anti-doping legislation, his ban was overturned earlier this year.

At the outset, it should be obvious that it is expensive not only to test for doping (which involves thousands of tests, personnel and careful storage and admin of samples) but also to prosecute in the case of a positive test. The odds, of course, favour the doper, even if temporarily, as the successful athlete tends to have the financial resources to defend these allegations.  And as a result of these gray areas and difficulties, the scale and scope of doping is growing. “It is impossible to say definitely how many of the world’s top athletes are using or have used drugs to improve their performances.” So writes Jeré Longman in The New York Times article titled Unbelievable Performances: A special report: Widening Drug Use Compromises Faith in Sports. Longman goes on to quote Olympic officials who estimate the number at 10%, but Longman adds: “Some veteran athletes put the figure at 30% or higher.”

And why not? It’s easy, drugs can be bought over the Internet, and masking is relatively easy too (a little soap or olive oil added to a urine sample neutralises EPO). Ordinary people use substances to enhance every aspect of their daily lives (whether or not they are healthy), so why not athletes?  Increasingly, it is looking like a case of, even if we don’t like it; doping is part and parcel of our sporting present, and as long as sponsors throw so much money at winners, and audiences pay to be entertained by them, doping will be remain an ingredient in the champions of the future.

*Research based largely Aren’t We All Positive?  – A (socio)economic analysis of doping in elite sport; commissioned by the European Commission with inputs from KPMG among others.


  1. Geoffrey Chapman says:

    Very interesting! I remember years ago already, my friend and then medical student, told me that all the Tour de France cyclists dope (ironically it was at the time when Lance was dominating). His justification was simply that the human body cannot endure those conditions/distances, etc. for the duration of the tour without drugs. At the time, I doubted him but I am becoming more and more convinced.

    I also think that it is in the nature of professional sportspersons to dope. I am certain they all have the “I want to win attitude” and I am certain that that attitude has developed over years – probably from school-going age. These individuals clearly have talent and I think that through the years of winning, wanting to win – and wanting to be the best – they will do almost anything to be the best. Throw in the perception that everyone else is doing it and that they may lose their “crown”, why not dope if it is so easily hidden/masked?

    Sport will never be dope free simply due to the desire to win.

    • Thanks for your feedback Geoffrey. The dopers seem to have the edge in terms of always being ahead of the curve, and having more money and expertise at their disposal. That being said, the biological passport will make doping a lot more difficult. Not impossible, but will certainly curb spikes in performance and ‘unusual activity’

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