New Study Estimates Doping Prevalence of At Least 30% in Elite Sports

A group of researchers have released a new study in the Sports Medicine journal earlier this week, and the results indicate that current testing methods vastly underestimate doping prevalence in elite sports.

The World Anti-Doping Agency, one of the study’s sponsors, tests the blood and urine of hundreds of thousands of athletes every year, and finds that 1-2 percent tend to test positive. The Agency also uses another method called the Athlete Biological Passport, which suggests that around 14 percent of athletes could be doping.

However, biological testing fails to capture some of the new, more sophisticated doping methods. The only way to truly know if someone cheated?  Go straight to the source.

Researchers from the University of Tübingen, Harvard Medical School, the Colorado School of Public Health, and the University of Sheffield, among others, did just that and asked the athletes themselves.

Using data collected at 2011’s International Association of Athletics Federations Word Championships in Athletics (WCA) and the Quadrennial Pan-Arab Games (PAG), the researchers aimed to capture the true prevalence of doping in elite sports.

Between the two events, six researchers approached 2,167 athletes and asked them to take the survey in one of 21 languages offered on a tablet computer. Of those asked, 6.7 percent refused. The study employed a randomized response technique (RRT) to guarantee athlete anonymity in hopes of securing more accurate results.

Athletes were asked if they had knowingly used an illegal substance in the past year, and if they had taken a supplement in general in the past year. Additionally, athlete response time was recorded. If an athlete responded unrealistically quickly, his or her answer was most likely thrown out because it easily could have been a careless mistake; thus, 30 percent of the fastest answers were discredited.

The team found that doping prevalence in the last year was 30-31 percent for athletes at the WCA and 45-49 percent for athletes at the PAG.

Interestingly, 440 of the WCA athletes and 670 of the PAG athletes also underwent biological testing, yielding only a 0.5 percent and 3.6 percent positive rate, respectively.

There is also reason to believe that the true prevalence could still be higher, including the fact that some of the athletes who chose not to respond could have done so because they dope.

It’s unknown why the PAG results were so much higher than those of the WCA, but the biological testing results also reflected that pattern.

The study lists as co-authors:

  • Rolf Ulrich
  • Harrison G. Pope Jr.
  • Léa Cléret
  • Andrea Petróczi
  • Tamás Nepusz
  • Jay Schaffer
  • Gen Kanayama
  • R. Dawn Comstock
  • Perikles Simon

You can read the full details of the study here.

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Tyler Hamilton’s book The Secret Race blew the cycling world to pieces. He broke the code of silence. It’s the best sports book I’ve read.

Hamilton told how he was “dragged into the dirty world of doping, denial, and duplicity.”

The three D’s of being a “drug cheat.”


Despicable, evil. All those who cheat to make themselves faster than their competitors who work harder or as hard should be ashamed. They should be banned. Idc Carl Lewis 9 golds. Doping is just so despicable and makes me very sad. Maybe I’ll never get as far as I wish in the sport of swimming because some jerks cheat unfairly and make all my hard work for nothing.


Whoever dislikes this supports theft. Can the dislike button just be removed?

Scott Morgan

I agree with you!

Scott Morgan

I’m for lifetime bans, plus criminal charges and financial punishment for cheaters. Zero tolerance.


Answers were discredited for being too quick? Fair enough it might take people a while to consider if they’d taken a supplement, but I think anyone who hadn’t ‘knowingly’ used an illegal substance would be able to answer that as quickly as saying their name. Anyone who responded unusually slowly to that question on the other hand…

Science Geek



If you read the actual study, they show the methodology used. They have to answer several questions before actually answering the one about doping and if someone is just clicking through the questions, which have a sizeable wall of text, then you can assume they didn’t read anything and their answers are invalid

About Torrey Hart

Torrey Hart

Torrey is from Oakland, CA, and majors in Media Studies and American Studies at Claremont McKenna College. When she's not writing about swimming or baseball, you can probably find her listening to a podcast or in a pool ... and/or watching Seinfeld, which she just realized is funny.

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