Fighting doping through sport redesign

This commentary discusses how the rules of the game may affect doping positively and negatively. The link between rules and doping prevalence is established. Some examples are given, indicating what to do and not.

The main scientific outcome of the paper is perhaps that the fight against doping can be performed cheaper than through classical means such as improved test quality/higher test frequency, or less progressive (more egalitarian) prize functions, or tougher sanctions. As such, the recommended strategy may be seen as a “Columbi Egg”. But, as always, nothing comes for free, and some serious creativity in sport redesign is needed to realize this method’s potential.

Keywords: Economics of doping, sport redesign, sport complexity, uncertainty of outcome, anti doping

Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) or doping is potentially dangerous for professional sport. Whether one argues philosophically [Gilberg et al., 2006, Loland and Hoppeler, 2012, Loland, 2017], economically [Haugen, 2011] or medically [Backhouse and McKenna, 2011], there are obvious reasons to try to reduce the phenomenon. Some doping, which most experts and non- experts seems to agree is unavoidable (see e.g. [Haugen and Popela, 2015]), and acceptable. However, a full legalization is quite a different story.

Some authors [Tangen, 2017a,b, Savulescu et al., 2004] came to the conclusion that such a fight cannot be won. However, certain potentially important alternative strategies with possible significant PED-use potential, have not been discussed seriously.
In this note, the link between sport design and doping affinity is established and discussed. The fact that dope tests vary between sports, and should vary between sports [Haugen, 2004], indicates clearly that doping prevalence varies between sports. That is, certain sports should expect less doping problems than other sports. The reason is obvious: A very complex sport, which rewards a multitude of human characteristics is clearly hard to “fix” by adding drugs compared to simpler sports. If it is all about running, the objective is clear and almost one-dimensional; run as fast as possible.

If one adds a ball, a pitch and two goals, the objective is almost likewise clear – win the match. However, how to win the match is surely a more complex task. In a 100-meter final, the man or woman who runs fastest wins, while in a soccer match the team running fastest or longest (aggregated) have very little effect on the match outcome. Soccer is an extremely more complex sport than track-and-field running, and hence it is a much more challenging task to dope a soccer team with reasonable chance of having a positive effect on aggregated results.

Hence, how a sport is designed – the rules – may be important when it comes to doping prevalence. A reasonable hypothesis could be, the more complex the sport is, the less value doping strategies should have.

A very interesting aspect of sports business is the rules. As opposed to other business areas like car production or medical services, sports define their own rules. To some extent, both car producers or medical doctors also define rules, but there are certain rules that are well outside the decisive space of these agents. They are constrained by the legal system in the country (or countries) where they execute their business.

Although most soccer fans would not approve such a strategy, there is nothing stopping FIFA from making the simple rule change of substituting “football is played with a ball” to “football is played with two balls”.

However, a medical doctor cannot within the health care system decide that he or she should start treating only every second patient. Hence, we can safely assume that sport has more economical regulatory power than most other business areas.In forthcoming paragraphs, this sport peculiarity, and its inherent potential consequences for doping, is discussed. In section 2 some of the most relevant results and their consequences for reduction of the doping problem are discussed. The main discussion on how rule changes may turn out beneficial (or not) is done in section 3, while section 4 concludes.