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Doping in Sports: A Game Theorist’s Perspective

Doping scandals in sports have become so commonplace in recent years that it is hard not to wonder if any athlete who accomplishes a magnificent feat was aided by drugs. Also, the huge risk involved with doping makes it hard to understand why so many athletes have turned to doping. That is until you consider game theory.

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Dr. Buechel of the University of Hamburg believes he has the answer to the doping anomaly in professional sports. Dr. Buechel explains that the game athletes play with respect to doping is called the “Athlete’s Dilemma”. Similar to the prisoner’s dilemma where both prisoners are incentivized to confess, the athlete’s dilemma involves the athletes somewhat wanting to dope to have an edge on the competition but at the same time being incentivized not too because of the possibility of drug testing. Buechel hypothesizes that because athletes are still doping, there must be other factors involved.

Buechel believes the issue is with how the drug tests are carried out. He believes drug testers have an incentive not to test athletes because they don’t want to harass them. Second, there is the fear that if they test all professional athletes that they will find a huge population of dopers which would be followed by a huge population of angry fans and loss in revenue. Third, if a sport is found to have a lot of dopers, clean athletes in the sport will feel like they have to dope in order to compete, possibly leading to more doping athletes.

Buechel’s concludes that the only way to combat doping would be to test everyone and make all results public. This would, in theory, lower the amount of dopers since there would be a near 100% chance of being caught and 100% chance of ruining their career.

With my limited knowledge on game theory, my solution to this issue would be to adjust the players’ strategies so that the nash equilibrium for the game would be to not dope. If some genius can think of a way to do this, maybe professional sports would have a few less cheaters.


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