A useful contribution to the study of doping, albeit at times a tad too technical

Alexis Sossa
Institute of Sociology, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile

Kjetil K. Haugen
Crime and NO punishment: Thoughts on the Use and Abuse of Performance-Enhancing Drugs
128 pages, paperback
Chișinău, Republic of Moldova: Eliva Press 2022
ISBN 978-1-63648-601-7

Competitive sport is significant for various aspects of individual and societal well-being. Overall, it provides a platform for athletes to showcase their abilities, inspire others, and create memorable moments of triumph and sportsmanship. However, with all the multiple benefits that sport entails, there is a black sheep, or as expressed in the book, a known crime with no easy solution (or punishment): the use and abuse of performance-enhancing drugs.

The media and social sciences often make strong moralistic statements when discussing doping. But, putting aside the ethical dilemmas of what is fair or virtuous, what would happen if we used a mathematical model to analyse doping? What would happen if we used game theory to evaluate doping to determine the different combinations of strategies and outcomes that are possible and that can help us understand (and perhaps fight) doping situations?

Crime and NO Punishment is a short book that combines a series of academic articles published by the author in the last 25 years. It is divided into seven chapters that problematise the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) inprofessional sports.

The first chapter discusses whether or not PEDs should be allowed in sports. Chapter Two brings into play within economic modelling the regulations and options that athletes have about doping. Chapter Three discusses how doping is a situation where a series of players and interests intervene. These three chapters bring together the most theoretical aspects of doping. The following four chapters correspond to more applied topics. Chapter Four analyses the paradoxes of tests using the self-report principle. Chapter Five revises the link between sports design and doping affinity. Chapter Six looks at an optimal amount of doping. The final chapter (7) discusses some similarities between competitive corruption in sports and doping.

As noted in the book, doping is a major problem in sports but not a new phenomenon. Philostratus and Galerius, reporting from the ancient Olympic Games in the third century BC, seem to have made the first reports on doping. Since then, the interests, participants, consequences, and evaluations have led to heated debates, organisations, procedures, regulations, and books.

Being on top of detecting new substances and ways to acquire and utilize them requires ongoing research, collaboration, and advanced testing technologies.

On the one hand, doping refers to athletes’ use of prohibited substances or methods to gain an unfair advantage in sports competitions. These can include anabolic steroids, stimulants, hormones, diuretics, and various other substances that enhance physical performance. On the other hand, game theory is a branch of applied mathematics and economics that studies strategic decision-making in situations where the outcome of one’s choices depends on the choices of others, and there is a set of payoffs that represent the outcomes or rewards associated with different combinations of strategies chosen by the players. It is a helpful framework for analysing and understanding the behaviour of individuals or groups in competitive or cooperative situations. Together, these angles are already an essential asset to understanding a wide range of real-world scenarios regarding doping in a practical way that goes beyond ethical assessments.

Another achievement of the book is to show what the practical problems the fight against doping entails; what actors are involved in the situation, such as economic actors, organisers, different sports, spectators, families, and the athletes themselves; and that what can be considered a benefit of one group can be a detriment for another. Also, the book shows that in the world of sports, just as athletes can participate in prohibited practices, so can institutions participate in different types of corruption. Finally, the book displays that not everyone sees the use of PEDs as a problem.

Achieving effective doping policies is not easy. Doping techniques constantly evolve, with new substances and methods being developed to stay ahead of detection. Being on top of detecting new substances and ways to acquire and utilize them requires ongoing research, collaboration, and advanced testing technologies. It is also essential to keep variability in mind since athletes’ responses to doping substances can vary due to differences in individual metabolism, genetics, and physiology. Accessibility and availability are also relevant since obtaining accurate and reliable information about doping can be challenging due to the secretive and illegal nature of the practice. There are also ethical aspects to consider, since conducting research on doping involves exposing individuals to potentially harmful substances, which is ethically problematic. As a result, much of the research is conducted using animal models or retrospective analysis of stored samples. Finally, international cooperation is needed. Doping is a global issue, and coordination and cooperation between different countries and sports organisations are essential. All this makes doping a practice with a low probability of being effectively controlled.

Toilet especially equipped with mirrors for sport competition drug testing. Anti-doping officials watch while athletes urinate for a sample. Tartu, Estonia 2023. (Shutterstock/Cloudy Design)

The general feeling of most Olympic athletes is that most athletes use PEDs, and although it is presumed that doping is widespread in all sports activities, those sports that focus on single abilities, force, speed, endurance, and so on, are more likely to have drug problems than sports where a range of combined talents are needed, such as basketball. That is why dope tests vary between sports; a very complex sport, which rewards a multitude of human characteristics, is hard to “fix” by adding drugs compared to more straightforward sports. If it is all about running, the objective is clear and almost one-dimensional: run as fast as possible. In a 100-meter final, the man or woman who runs fastest wins, while in a soccer match, the team running fastest or the longest has minimal effect on the match outcome. Soccer is a significantly more complex sport than track-and-field running. Hence, it is a much more challenging task to dope a soccer team with a reasonable chance of positively affecting aggregated results.

Consequently, not all sportspeople or sports see the use of illegal substances as a concrete possibility to obtain a benefit (and although doping is also present in these sports, its impact is less). Nevertheless, every current athlete is subjected to tremendous pressure to win. In most situations, athletes’ performances are judged on two levels simultaneously: athletes compete against direct opponents. They are also automatically entered into a quest for breaking records, which opens up the competitive arena to include all athletes from the past. The book shows how gaining insight into the driving forces behind doping behaviour is essential to designing effective anti-doping measures. While the doping decision is very complex, involving moral, economic and health considerations, theoretically, this complexity can be distilled into a simple decision situation where pros and cons are weighed against each other in the context of unknown but assumed choices of the opponents. The book contributes to developing a better understanding of doping decisions by formulating and formally solving multi-player doping games.

For studies on doping, economics, and regulatory policies, the book is a very useful contribution, with multiple examples showing that there are strong economic forces driving athletes into taking drugs and that economic modelling proves valuable in understanding how various regulatory policies affect athletes’ choices and why athletes choose to use drugs. In this line, it is also a contribution to sport and society, as doping is potentially threatening for professional sport and, without a doubt, has influence and repercussions on amateur sports (and sports practices). Whether one argues sociologically, philosophically, economically or medically, there are clear reasons to try to reduce the phenomenon.

Finally, beyond all its merits, the text works more like a compilation of academic papers than a book. For example, although each chapter presents a conclusion, a general conclusion that unites all the topics discussed in the book is not given. Otherwise, it is a fairly technical book for a small audience interested in mathematical models and technical allusions, making many passages and explanations more of a distraction than a complement for a general audience.

Copyright © Alexis Sossa 2024

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