Trying to gain an unfair advantage through performance-enhancing drugs has plagued sport for years. From swimming to soccer, Aussie Rules to athletics, sports across the spectrum have suffered blows to their credibility as a result of banned substances.
Most famously, seven-time winner of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong, made a spectacular fall from grace in 2013 following years of doping allegations by former teammates. The incident shone a harsh light on the prevalence of drugs at the highest levels of sporting competition.
What if there was a new way to help ensure that athletes play fair? A system to help increase compliance with existing anti-doping regulations? Discover how a La Trobe expert is using experimental economics to help elite sport maintain its credibility.
How economics can change athletes’ behaviour
A system based around incentives rather than punishment is being trialled by La Trobe University’s Senior Lecturer in Microeconomics, Dr Liam Lenten. The trial uses grant money supplied by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and is being run in conjunction with the University of Adelaide’s Experimental Economics Lab.
“Current anti-doping enforcement relies on suspensions and fines. Our research will consider innovative anti-doping policy ideas that can be used in tandem with existing punishments,” Dr Lenten says.
As an alternative, Dr Lenten and his colleagues propose a system called ‘conditional superannuation’. Simply put, athletes sign a contract whereby they forego a percentage of their earnings and prize money, say 10 per cent, and recoup those earnings at a later date – providing they continue to test negative for banned substances.
How bad is the doping problem, really?
There’s a strong need for new approaches to doping in elite sport. In an academic paper on the subject, Dr Lenten argues that high-profile doping scandals raise questions about whether suspensions, sanctions and public shaming sufficiently discourage athletes from using banned substances.
Informally, athletes, officials and researchers believe that doping might be far more widespread than is reported or tested for. Dr Lenten and his co-authors report:
The actual rate of doping has been approximated at 14–39 per cent of athletes, compared to the 0.5–2.0 per cent level of positive doping control tests. In surveys asking athletes and coaches to estimate doping, the numbers escalate further.
What solutions to doping exist?
Given the extent of the problem and the impossibility of ensuring drug-free sport under the current system, consider these alternative approaches.
The first is full legalisation of drugs in sport. This course of action would undoubtedly be met with public and professional outcry and, given the risks that some performance-enhancing drugs pose to health, could potentially result in deaths.
The second option is a draconian, even dystopian, system of monitoring and control that might go as far as ‘criminal investigations, forensic DNA analyses, “coercive” interviewing, extensive psychometric and personality surveys, lie detection testing, and athlete microchipping for whereabouts checks, as well as, ultimately, in vivo chemical testing.’
This option, aside from being a direct slight to an athlete’s personal integrity, would prove prohibitively expensive, and is at least for the time being unviable.
Are economic incentives the middle ground?
A middle way could be conditional superannuation. But while it may prove an effective adjunct to existing policy, on its own conditional superannuation isn’t perfect. This is because individual competitors respond to punishment or incentive-based motivations in different ways.
For example, younger athletes may not perceive the benefit of money for a future that still seems so far away. And older athletes may not be deterred by the threat of a ban or a late financial penalty if they’re already in the twilight of their career. However, Dr Lenten says that these problems could be mitigated by taking a context-specific approach to each athlete’s contract. This means younger athletes might face bans, whereas older athletes might face financial penalties that could even take effect retroactively.
Dr Lenten and his colleagues have begun testing the model using a pilot experiment. So far they’ve found ‘early and suggestive evidence in favour of trialling a conditional superannuation scheme at some level of professional or elite sport’. While not yet conclusive, the study represents a positive development to an issue that can’t and won’t be solved overnight.
In the face of elite sport’s ambitious, competitive and high-pressure environment, athletes are likely to test the rules in search of an advantage. However, considered and evidence-based solutions from outside the boxes of ‘radical tolerance’ or ‘stifling scrutiny’ might be just the motivation they need to stay on a level playing field.
Want to change the world with economics? Check out La Trobe’s courses in Business and Commerce.