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.


  1. marklewis says:

    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.”

  2. Swimmer? says:

    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.

  3. chebstroke says:

    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 says:


    • Torrey Hart says:

      The report said that they were worried about people who didn’t actually read the instructions and just carelessly clicked through

    • Mike says:

      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

  4. The Truth Hurts says:

    The sad part is that most of us could list the coaches, clubs, and schools doing this crap. We know exactly who they are, but the science of testing is years behind the science of cheating. Now that we have technology allowing us to save samples for many years, re-testing these samples will eventually shine a light on these crooked people.

  5. sven says:

    Not surprising at all. Would have only been surprising if it was any less. Enjoy the spectacle of sport, but keep a healthy dose of cynicism. Doesn’t matter how much you like an athlete, they might be a doper. That said, we can’t know who is or isn’t until we have proof. Fast swimming is not evidence. That is as much an indictment of Katinka Hosszu or Ye Shiwen as it is Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps.

    • Steve Nolan says:

      Feels like I could have written this comment myself.

      I just assume everyone is, it’s much easier to just not care that way.

  6. Sal the Swimming Guy says:

    I may be the only one, but I believe that across all sports, the number is probably much higher than that. I like to think that the use of steroids in swimming is less prevalent than in other sports, but honestly, I have not a clue.

    • Steve Nolan says:

      There’s really no reason to think it’s significantly lower in swimming than other sports, aside from like, thinking swimmers are somehow “better” than that. (Which is foolish and silly and I will not stand for it.)

      Are there probably fewer dopers in swimming when compared to American football? For sure. But in comparison to like, other fairly obscure Olympic sports? It’s gotta be pretty similar.

      • Sal the Swimming Guy says:

        I definitely wasn’t trying to imply that swimmers were in any way “better” than that. It’s been shown many times that they clearly are not.

        I was thinking more along the lines of NBA, NFL and MLB. I believe that drug use is far more rampant in these leagues than it is in swimming. Onece again, I honestly don’t really know and could be wildly off with these assumptions.

      • Taa says:

        In the USA the majority of top swimmers are teenagers. The club system is heavily decentralized so how are all these youngsters with no money paying for and learning to get doped up?

        • Steve Nolan says:

          Football players at my stupid high school were ‘roiding up.

          Given how crazy competitive everything is these days, people are trying to get an edge however they can in a million different ways. Plenty of kids are poppin’ Adderall to study more better, dunno why that same kinda thing wouldn’t extend to athletics.

  7. Savannah says:

    At least, yeah. I used to train tested athletes, and it was laughably easy to get away with doping.

  8. G.I.N.A says:

    I say fake . Too many reasons to bore ppl but just one – it is not anonymous because tablets have cameras .

    • Mike says:

      Not sure you understand how studies work but you have to get approval from an ethics board which would ensure its completely anonymous.

      Any breach of that would result in serious consequences so I doubt its fake.

      • Liv says:

        Mike, I agree with you that ethical review is critical here. What was most convincing to me regarding the anonymity of the study was looking at how they actually implemented their randomized response technique: as far as I understood, respondents see 2 questions (1 doping related and one not) on the same screen with only one set of ‘yes/no’ buttons to press. They can deconvolute the data after the fact because they know the statistical probability of a yes answer to the non- doping related question. This means that even in GINA’s hypothetical tablet camera spying scenario, a ‘yes’ response by an individual could never be attributable to a ‘yes’ answer about doping. I think it’s rather clever.

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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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