Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Reality Check

July 26th, 2012 · 4 Comments


Compared to the Games of the late Cold War, when steroids were integral to athletic success, this year’s Olympics will be remarkably clean. Yet we also know that drug use has not vanished—how could it, give the rewards at stake at the ultra-competitive nature of those tempted to use? The big question is what percentage of cheats are ensnared by the current testing regime.

A definitive answer is impossible, of course, but a little light was shed by an email I recently received from an elite track-and-field athlete—not an Olympian, but someone who competes at the very highest levels of their sport. I promised to protect this person’s identity, for what they had to say was fairly damning, if somewhat hyperbolic:

In the past 8 months, I have been tested outside of competition six times by the USADA.  I can only imagine how often USA Track & Field’s top stars are tested.  In most countries (e.g. Belarus, Jamaica) they don’t even have a real agency like USADA to conduct Out of Competition tests.  Sure, when an athlete wins an event at the Olympics, they get drug tested, but that doesn’t mean the person didn’t use steroids the entire year beforehand and simply stop using them in time for the drugs to clear his/her body at the Olympics.  The science, which can be easily ascertained by a chemist or doctor is such that an athlete could still be retaining all of the physical advantages of the drugs without the metabolites appearing in their urine.  The fact that most athletes around the world have less than a 0.1% chance of getting tested outside of the Olympics or World Championships is not a deterrent at all.  Very few countries have the robust out-of-competition testing regimen that the United States has.

Something needs to be done outside of the Games themselves to ensure a level and fair playing field.  If the IOC truly cared about this issue, they would mandate that an athlete have a certain number of random, out of competition tests with a year, six months, and three months from the Olympics.

Digging a bit deeper into the statistics for track-and-field athletes, it seems that my correspondent’s 0.1 percent figure was a bit low. But when I pinged him back with a correction, he made an important observation about the ease with which tests can be skipped:

I know that in the US, if you miss more than three out-of-competition tests during an 18-month period that it is the same as a positive test and you receive a suspension. I know many athletes in other countries go to “training camps” in places like South Africa for weeks or months at a time during the off-season and may not report their whereabouts to avoid testing officials.

The upshot is that elite athletes in many countries have the odds in their favor should they elect to enhance their performance with drugs. The penalties for getting caught are extreme—one could lose everything, as lengthy bans are the norm. But if you’re smart about your intake and your national sports authority doesn’t give a damn about testing, you may only face a one in ten chance of detection. After dedicating your whole life to an arcane pursuit, and knowing that drugs could provide just the boost you need to achieve athletic immortality, who wouldn’t take that risk?

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    A small anecdote: my high school biology teacher used to be a competitive swimmer. At an international meet, she was returning to the women’s locker room when she heard what she thought were a bunch of men talking inside. Turned out it was the East German women’s team. That was the era of nasal-administered anabolic steroids.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: The deep voices were a giveaway as early as the Montreal Games, which is where the East German swim team first made its mark. A lot of other competitors complained, noting that there was just no way that women could naturally speak that way. But their protests were ignored.

  • scottstev

    And those young ladies paid dearly for being state-sponsored pin-cushions. I hate to be cynical, but I’d guess that over half of high-level athletes are using in some form.

    I know in the UFC, they’ve only just started an out-of-competition testing system that ensnared Alistair Overeem. Given the limits of urine testing, and with enough fair-warining it’s remarkably easy to time your cycle around the tests. I can’t see human nature easily resisting those odds.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: There is probably an excellent game-theory paper to be written about PEDs. I’m sure all athletes would prefer to be clean, since they do care an awful lot about their bodies. But if they suspect even one competitor is cheating, they feel compelled to cheat, too–the consequences of doing nothing (and thus falling way behind) are just too severe.

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