90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Monday, August 5, 2013

Why Do Professional Athletes Risk Doping?

Tyson Gay of the United States, left, and Asafa Powell of Jamaica, right, during their 100 meter race at the 2009 Shanghai Golden Grand Prix, an international track and field event. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Tyson Gay of the United States, left, and Asafa Powell of Jamaica, right, during their 100 meter race at the 2009 Shanghai Golden Grand Prix, an international track and field event. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez was caught doping — but it’s not just baseball.

In 2013 alone, track star Tyson Gay, tennis player Victor Troicki and sprinter Asafa Powell have all tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.

Why are athletes still taking chances with doping when the stakes are so high? According to Sports Illustrated senior writer David Epstein, it’s because athletes who dope are rarely caught.

“Testing is largely ineffective,” Epstein told Here & Now. “And it’s worth it. Look at LeBron James — he got fined $3 million out of a $100 million contract.”

American Olympic athletes undergo the most rigorous drug testing. Still, the rate of false negatives are extremely high and athletes are able to use lower doses of performance enhancing drugs that go undetected, Epstein said.

Authorities are starting to use data gathering and investigations instead, to catch athletes who dope.

“Intelligence gathering is the new anti-doping,” he said.

Guest

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well, now let's back up and ask how widespread is doping in sports, and why are athletes still willing to take these risks. David Epstein is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, and he is with us now. And David, just looking at this list, in 2013 alone, track star Tyson Gay, tennis player Victor Troicki, sprinter Asafa Powell all have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Why are these athletes willing to take these kind of risks?

DAVID EPSTEIN: Well, what's really been unusual about this is actually that they have tested positive because frankly, the public reputation of drug testing far exceeds its actual capabilities. The rate of false negatives is enormous. If you know how the tests work, there's still really no reason to get caught most of the time. So the risk-reward is still very tilted towards reward.

I mean, I actually looked at analysis of minor league baseball players at one point and saw that players that had actually failed a test and been suspended were far more likely than their peers to have moved up to the next level of baseball.

HOBSON: Well, how much has the testing changed?

EPSTEIN: It hasn't changed all that much, and if you look at World Anti-Doping Agency numbers, it's stayed sort of - the dopers and the anti-dopers are sort of in technological lockstep. Even as technology has gotten better, there's still only about one percent of tests that return positives.

And there are still huge loopholes. Like the most common test is the so-called T:E ratio test for testosterone. It tests your ratio of testosterone to another hormone called epitestosterone. One to one is normal. You can go up to four to one before you even trigger the positive test. So that's - you have 300-percent room to play with your testosterone before you even have to worry most of the time.

HOBSON: Well, and now the kinds of things that are being talked about, the performance-enhancing stuff, is not just drugs, it's this genetic engineering. There's all this new stuff. Can they test for that?

EPSTEIN: There are - some of it can be tested for, but frankly the traditional methods are so effective and so difficult to detect that there's no reason even to move on to that right now. With the current news in baseball, none of these guys failed tests. I mean, intelligence gathering is really the new frontier of anti-doping. Nobody's failing tests even now, really, for the most part.

HOBSON: What do you mean by intelligence gathering? How are we finding out about this?

EPSTEIN: Well, this one actually happened because I think a disgruntled - someone who gave Tony Bosch some money actually got disgruntled and, sort of, leaked it to the media, but that goes all the back BALCO, right. The reason - science didn't catch up with BALCO, it was a dispute with a track coach and Victor Conte, and the track coach then sent a sample of the designer drug to a lab.

So really now the frontier for sports, they're, they're hiring their own investigators. They're collaborating with law enforcement. And that's where sort of the biggest busts are coming from now, not drug testing.

HOBSON: Why are so many athletes, though, willing to take this risk? I think of the public shame for somebody like Lance Armstrong, after we find out that he had been using performance-enhancing drugs. I mean, why are they willing to do that?

EPSTEIN: Lance - first of all, Lance seems to have been immune to pressure even before this, but he is living a far better lifestyle now than he would have been if he had not doped. So, all of the evidence suggests that the penalties for doping don't nearly outweigh the potential rewards that you get from doping.

I mean again to go to those minor league baseball stats, a player who got caught doping had an increased 70 percent chance of moving to the next level, compared to only 20 percent for an extra year of experience. So doping is more valuable than having another year of experience in that context.

HOBSON: But all those Tour de France wins just down the drain.

EPSTEIN: It's certainly embarrassing for him, but at the time - even Lance has admitted that he would never have won those if he hadn't doped. So everything he's built came from that. And again, he is still living better than he would have if he had never doped, even though all of his records have been stripped.

HOBSON: I'm going to make a ridiculous comparison now and say, you know, when I play Monopoly, I don't want to cheat because what's the point of playing that game. Does that exist in professional sports these days, just a feeling that none of this is worth it if I'm just going to cheat at the game?

EPSTEIN: I think it does for a lot of athletes, and I think there are clean athletes, and I think you're actually seeing more will on the part of athletes to sort of police their peers. At the same time, you might not last at that level as long as the next guy. You probably wouldn't have made it in the Tour de France for a long time, you know, with that attitude. You just couldn't make it.

You know, you've already narrowed the population to people who are really talented, and any little benefit makes a huge difference, and doping is a huge benefit. So you're probably weeding out people the higher you get in the competitive sort of spectrum if they're not willing to do whatever it takes.

HOBSON: How can authorities stay ahead of the game?

EPSTEIN: They really have to do intelligence gathering now. That's the frontier, whether it's in Olympic sports, whether it's in football or baseball. They have to basically collaborate with local law enforcement, and they have to have their own investigators, and they have to, when they do catch a player, they have to treat them the way that, you know, someone who's caught in a criminal investigation is, where maybe you bargain for a reduced sentence in return for information that leads to other sanctions.

That's what's been happening in Olympic sports more and more. That and to improve testing, going with what's called passport methods, like more frequent testing that allows you not to monitor for a specific drug but for abnormal fluctuations of normal physical parameters.

HOBSON: David Epstein is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated talking with us about doping in sports and how widespread it is. David, thank you so much.

EPSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

And a quick reminder now, the other news we're following, the military trial of Army Major Nidal Hasan begins tomorrow. He's accused of killing 13 people, injuring another 32 in that shooting rampage in Fort Hood. That story later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

But up next, two families who also lost loved ones to shootings are now helping each other. That's next on HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Betty

    Mr. Epstein’s comment that Lance Armstrong is still “living better than he would have if he hadn’t doped” is a sad and shocking perspective. Is financial and otherwise publicly acclaimed success “living better”. Don’t honor, truth, ethics and professional humility trump these?

    • Smuff

      No. I’m afraid not. Mr. Epstein is right. Armstrong would be a no-body if he hadn’t cheated. He is much better off having doped. He is worth millions. If he hadn’t have doped, he would be working a 9-5 after a failed cycling career .

    • Smuff

      You have 2 choices…lock back at your life at the age of 70 with a paltry retirement package, expensive ailments and one 3 bed house in the burbs….but at least you have your self respect…OR…. have millions, everything you always wanted, no financial worries, and by then, people will have forgiven you anyway. Or should people never forgive and forget??

    • Smuff

      In years gone by, I’d have been far more inclined to agree with your last sentence. Truly, I would like o believe that, but I’ve seen what happens. Personally, I don’t want to cheat, but if you are ok with cheating, then it is definitely beneficial for far more people than you’d like to admit. The old addage of cheats never prosper is a lie. This is proven time and again. Cheats may get caught from time to time, but they, and most others always fall on their feet.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

August 28 Comment

Catching Up With The Polyphonic Spree

The choral rock band out of Dallas, Texas, has been thrilling audiences with its live performances for over a decade.

August 28 5 Comments

‘Enormous’ Growth Of Ocean Garbage Patch

The oceanographer who discovered the floating island of trash in 1997 says he's shocked by how much it's grown.

August 27 Comment

Veteran Honored, But Struggles To Keep Business Open

Former Marine Matt Victoriano is being recognized as a "Champion of Change" at the White House.

August 27 40 Comments

In Defense Of Schlock Music: Why We Love/Hate It

Music critic Jody Rosen defends the kind of over-the-top, sentimental songs that Journey, Lionel Richie, Billy Joel and Prince made famous.