Dealing with doping: a question of the benchmark

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Carrying out regular drug tests over time to amass “longitudinal data” on athletes may help improve the accuracy of testing, argues a July 2008 analysis compiled by economics consultancy Oxera.

Drug testing is currently a topical issue, with the Beijing Olympics following hot on the heels of the Tour de France. Despite conceding that at first sight there are significant deterrents to doping such as the damage to reputations and potential financial and health costs of being found guilty, the consultants argue that the fact that sportspeople are still being caught “suggests that the incentive to cheat is significant”. 

The Oxera study argues that a more effective drug-testing regime is required to complement the threat of sanctions to better fight illegal doping and makes the case for the systematic testing of individuals over time to record the natural variation in their results. 

This would allow doping to be detected earlier and in smaller quantities, providing “greater confidence than traditional doping tests,” the consultants argue. What’s more, analysis of longitudinal data “improves the accuracy of the estimate and gives extra information about historical patterns in performance”. 

If analysis of data collected over time improves the accuracy of testing, it may allow governing bodies to set more accurate targets, thus “increasing the likelihood of getting caught and thereby reducing the incentive to cheat,” argue the consultants. 

Nevertheless, Oxera believe that there may be significant political, institutional and practical barriers to “collecting high-quality data over time,” citing recent disputes between the French anti-doping agency and the Tour de France organiser as an example of this. 

Moreover, “the indicators for athletes have a natural variance over time,” making it more difficult to distinguish genuine differences in performance from such natural evolution, while “frequent blood tests for athletes add to agency costs and may be disruptive to the athlete”. 

Oxera conclude that “the benefits of increased confidence” derived from mapping performance gains over time could eventually outweigh the costs, despite the negative consequences for athletes and governing bodies. 

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