New York Times: Study Shows Anti-Doping Tests Only Catch Fraction of Offenders

In a piece posted by the New York Times earlier this week, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) revealed the terrifying results of a study done on exactly what percentage of athletes are using performance-enhancing drugs.

The Study

WADA distributed anonymous surveys to 2,000 track and field athletes in 2011. After poring through the results, they determined that roughly 29% of the athletes at the 2011 World Championships, and 45% of the athletes at the 2011 Pan-Arab Games, responded that they had doped in the past year.

So, in round numbers, more than one-in-four of the world’s top track & field athletes had doped.

That’s as compared to less than 2% of tests the year prior having come back as positive.

The coverup

The researchers hired wanted to publish their findings immediately, knowing the kind of impact it would have on the sports community. According to the New York Times piece, however, they held the responses (see the NYT piece for full details on how that happened – we won’t recreate the wheel).

The editorial

The test was on track & field athletes, not swimmers, but we have little reason to believe that swimming is any different. Taken into account, there’s a few clear conclusions.

One is that there is a huge amount of athletes in sports doping who are never even close to getting caught. The recent major league baseball exposing shows that the easiest way to catch dopers continues to be not with doping tests, rather through following the money. The sport would probably be cleaner if resources were invested more heavily in forensic accountants and private investigators than in drug testers (though that’s a scary leap to make).

Regardless, if athletes enjoyed doping and putting up mind-popping numbers, they all would have lied and just said “no, I’m clean.” At the end of the day, everyone is looking for assurances of a level playing field.

The results of this study might, in fact, only increase the number of athletes who are cheating. It might lead more athletes to seek out whatever is working to put themselves on an even playing field.

Secondly, the athletes seem to know how much of a challenge it is to get caught. In what reality would 45% of the athletes be doping if it weren’t fairly common knowledge within the sport that the odds of getting caught fell somewhere between slim-and-none.

And perhaps, the real story is that the results are an indicator that the athletes want it to end. If so many athletes were willing to admit to doping on promises of anonymity, even with how much trouble most of the sporting community has trusting their governing federations.

So, as tragic as they are for sports and the sports fan, maybe the recent mega-exposures in baseball and track & field that have left those sports on the brink of destruction are a good thing. Perhaps they have pierced this veil of invincibility and the numbers will go down. Ultimately, though, we have no idea if they will, because all we know is that even with these huge breaks, only a fraction of admitted dopers are being caught.

By the way: we’ve had sources tell us that at least one swimmer was a client of the anti-aging clinic that has been involved in breaking the massive baseball scandal, but have been unable to verify that vehemently enough to report that swimmer’s identity.



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Sean S

I think one of the biggest reasons for this is the lack of organizations like the USADA in other countries. While I’m sure that plenty of American athletes cheat I would bet that it is a smaller percentage due to the USADA being able to show up at any time and demand a test. Countries like Russia are more likely to come up with an injury if they think a star athlete will test positive at an international competition to avoid a potential four year ban. Storing blood samples and testing them as technology improves my be our best hope for now though.


While many of us have speculated on the “cleanliness” of the sport, it’s kind of a bummer to start seeing literature come out (though not directly implicating swimming) about the prevalence of doping in other Olympic sports. Hopefully the young NAG record-breaking kids coming through the ranks are/will stay clear of this kind of thing.

Or (and this is a terrible thought), some of those age groupers are already into it.

Philip Johnson

I don’t think age groupers are doing it mainly because of the fact many don’t have the means if they wanted to and there’s really no great incentive for them as compared to an elite swimmer who’s vying for sponsorships and medals. I think what we’re seeing is natural progression more or less.


Two decades ago, when I was a teenager, there were several people at the Junior National level I personally knew were doping. It’s completely naive to think that it’s not going on at nearly every level.


naive to think it’s not possible

I don’t think the kids would do it on their own, neccessarily… I think some parents would do it. Not even with swimming in mind. Just athletic excellence and I think it might start at puberty. It disgusts me to even think about it, but it would be completely naive to think that it isn’t happening.

Philip Johnson

Athletes are going to do whatever to give them a competitive edge and are going to find ways to get around rules or testing. You can’t stop that.

My concern is if some countries are doping their athletes systematically. If an adult swimmer or track and field athlete wants to dope, fine, that’s their own risk. But it concerns me when a 16-year-old Chinese swimmer tests positive for EPO. Or when a 14-year-old Russian swimmer receives a warning for a substance violation. America or Europe could be doing it as well, but I hope not.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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