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The Never Ending Dilemma in Athletics

Performance-enhancing drugs have always been and continue to be prevalent in professional sports, particularly in athletics and cycling. Irrespective of the new technologies and structures used such as the athlete biological passport that profiles each athlete based on the results of his/her doping test, athletes and organizers are still able to avoid getting caught. As discussed in lecture, doping in professional sports can be analyzed through the framework of the prisoner’s dilemma. In order to compete with another athlete, an athlete has the option to either take performance-enhancing drugs or to remain clean and avoid the risk of the inspection process. The strategy with the best pay-off would be for both athletes to remain clean, however, the dominant strategy is to take the drugs in order to gain an advantage over your opponent and increase your likelihood of winning. The inspection process therefore fails to adequately position athletes into taking the strategy with the best payoff.

However, the article posits that based on the study by Dr. Buechel and his colleagues, inspectors have reasons to “skimp on testing”. The first reason is the cost associated with testing every individual athlete, the second is the time associated with testing, as athletes must give up an hour a day to be tested. Regardless, the main reason for the lack of adequate testing is the influence of customers of sports events, sponsorships, and media companies. Customers are less likely to support sporting events and athletes who are involved in doping scandals. The best strategy for inspectors and regulators is to therefore “test sparingly” and avoid a complete collapse of athletics given that the majority of athletes will test positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Inspectors and organizers therefore lack the incentive to implement affective punishments for athletes caught doping. Even if athletes believe it to be morally incorrect to take performance-enhancing drugs, the failure to adequately monitor drug intake means they are more likely to pursue the dominant strategy and take the drugs. Thus, it is the “third pary”, the customers who influence the strategy of athletes and leave them trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma.

Buechel’s study proposes some solutions to the doping dilemma. These include, completely replacing current inspectors and regulators with a new body of actors; another is to “decrease the benefits of doping” by diminishing prize money in athletic competitions. However, the study concludes that the best proposal and the least radical for reaching a “dope-free equilibrium” would be to tackle the information failure and provide customers with background knowledge of the different doping procedures carried out in athletics. With more information and transparency, customers can decide whether or not to support certain athletic competitions based on the credibility of its anti-doping policies. In the long run, this may eradicate the prisoner’s dilemma for athletes, as inspectors, medics and organisers will not have the flexibility to “skimp on testing”.

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September 2015