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More on Doping

2008 April 13
by Brad Humphreys

Skip had an interesting post on doping last week that prompted more discussion in the comments. I have been working on several research projects related to the economics of doping for the past year or so (with little to show for it except a paper on last year’s WEA program and a folder full of rejection letters, but that’s another story). The use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes continues to get quite a bit of coverage in the popular press. The gist of much of the reportage on doping falls into a few predictable categories: (1) the use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes is rampant, or at least more widespread than the general public suspects; (2) the use of these substances is a travesty, scathing indictment of the sorry state of sport, a horrible consequence of the corrosive effect of money on the purity of sport, etc.; and (3) Something Drastic Must Be Done ASAP.

Take, for example, an article in Sunday’s New York Times about doping in athletics. Track coach Trevor Graham is going on trial next month on drug and money laundering charges related to doping among world-class sprinters. Point (1) comes out in the first paragraph

When one of the most successful coaches in the history of track and field goes on trial next month in the long-running federal investigation into doping in sports, lawyers for both sides are prepared to reveal that cheating in track is far more widespread than previously known.

Points (2) and (3) are scattered throughout the article, with references to “underside of track and field” and tales of Federal regulators ruthlessly stamping out this scourge.

From the perspective of economics, much of this seems to miss the interesting parts. We know this: athletes, even at the highest level, have different abilities and all face strong and clear incentives to improve their performance. There is a lot of strategic interaction among athletes, and the compensation system in tournaments skews earnings significantly. Both of these factors amplifiy the consequences of outcomes. And to top it all off, the use of performance enhancing drugs is very difficult to detect, and the regulators and chemists are in an “arms race” that the regulators can’t possibly win. Athletes face powerful economic incentives to dope and have easy access to new doping methods that are hard to detect. Under these conditions, many will use performance enhancing drugs, and most will get away with it.

The interesting economic angle relates to the question Rod Fort raised in the comments: “does anybody on the revenue generation side really care?” My answer is no. Event organizers desire absolute quality to increase interest in their events. World records, amazing performances that go well beyond what 99% of the population can do, “the human drama of athletic competition” bit. Sports fans, especially casual sports fans, are primarily interested in extraordinary performances. During the McGwire-Sosa home run race a few years ago, how many people said “I’m not paying attention because they are both on the juice?” Plenty of incentives exist to look the other way on the doping issue on the revenue generation side, but nobody pays much attention to it.

I realize that there are very important cost issues here as well, but I’m just sayin’ …

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