The economic solution to doping

In this article I argue that the solution to the problem of doping is not a doping-free sport, because such a solution is not economically feasible. Writing of this short article was motivated by an excellent pieces by @diggerforum (link here) and Ross Tucker @scienceofsport (link here). @diggerforum argues that there isn’t any solution to the problem of doping, I will show that his claim is most probably true. However I will show that the impossibility of finding a solution is the consequence of incorrectly set anti-doping goals. Currently, we assume that the result of our anti-doping effort has a binary nature, i.e. it either leads to a doping-free sport or not. Even though there isn’t a solution for doping-free sport, there still might be an economic solution, a socially optimal anti-doping program. This article offers, what Ross Tucker calls the “-omics” approach, in its most general form.

First of all, what does a doping-free sport mean? I understand it as a situation, where in a certain sport contest, there is no athlete whose performance is enhanced by the current or past use of any prohibited substance or method. For example, a doping-free Tour de France would mean that the performances of all the riders at the time of the competition are totally natural, i.e. they are not enhanced by current or past doping and thus the final ranking is as if no doping substance ever existed. This also implies that the “natural” pro-tour rider has to be better than any other non-pro-tour doped competitive cyclists, otherwise the doper would take his place in a pro-tour team.

The deeper you examine the argument the more absurd the whole concept of doping-free sport becomes. Doping-free sport is theoretically possible, however at any circumstances it is extremely improbable. Even if you use the best possible tests and methods, even if a death sentence for dopers is implemented, there still will be those risking their life to win the yellow jersey (olympic gold medal in swimming or whatever..).

Economically speaking, the costs of deterring the last athlete from doping or the last substance from being used are prohibitively high. I cannot imagine any situation in which an economically optimal solution would be a doping-free sport. In economics of crime, this is not a surprising result, we are used to argue that there is always a point where another effort to deter crime of any kind (or any bad things from happening) would be socially suboptimal. In this point it is just better to allocate resources somewhere else. Just imagine the costs of stopping all the possible terrorist attacks, it is indeed possible but not feasible. The optimal anti-doping effort will never lead to a doping-free sport.

Since the doping-free sport is practically impossible, anti-doping organisations will never achieve it. Therefore the main goal of anti-doping has to be redefined, what should we try to achieve is not perfect deterrence, but rather maximisation of athletes’ welfare with least costs. If there are still dopers in sport, it doesn’t mean that the whole system failed, because it might still significantly reduce the costs of doping for most athletes and thus improve their welfare.

@diggerforum is right that doping-free sport is utopia, however what is not utopia is an anti-doping system that increases (rather than decreases….) athletes wellbeing. We are far from such a system, mainly because the incentives of anti-doping institutions do not match the interests of athletes. As recent events have shown, this is definitely not the case at this moment. The scandals have also shown that we need the -omics approach to doping more than ever.



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