How many Olympic athletes are taking drugs?

No matter how sophisticated testing is, it can’t catch everyone. EPA/Justin Setterfield

John Fahey, the President of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), promised before the London Olympics that anti-doping testing at Games would employ the latest advancements and would be as rigorous as possible.

A number of athletes were banned for doping violations before the Games began. But how big is the problem? What percentage of athletes are involved in illegal drug use?

Each year WADA gets data on analytical results from its accredited anti-doping laboratories. In 2009 there were 35 WADA-accredited laboratories, conducting a combined total of 277,928 analyses. A total of 5,610 samples - or 2.02% of the complete sample - produced either “adverse” or “atypical” findings.

In their reports, WADA representatives stressed that an adverse or atypical finding is not the same as an adjudicated or sanctioned anti-doping rule violation. That’s because some athletes are allowed to use substances for therapeutic reasons. So it would be incorrect to assume that the incidence of doping is 2.02%; in all probability it is lower.

Let’s look at Australia’s data from 2009. According to WADA, 6,834 samples were analysed, with 41 adverse analytical findings (an incidence rate of 0.6%). In the reporting period for 2008-09, the Australian Sports Anti-doping Authority conducted 7,498 biological tests of athletes, resulting in 29 athletes or support personnel being entered into the Register of Findings of anti-doping rule violations.

The incidence rate for doping violations in the period was thus 0.39%, which is (as expected) lower than the incidence rate of 0.6% reported for adverse or atypical findings reported for all sports by WADA. Data from other countries reveal a similar incidence rate for detected doping violations.

The data suggest that doping is a relatively rare occurrence. But few regard such statistics as a reliable measure of the true incidence of doping. Essentially, these figures merely tell us how many athletes have tested positive, not how many are actually using drugs and avoiding detection.

How many of this lot are taking drugs? Nick Webb

In 2006, every player in the USA’s National Hockey League was tested between January 15 and the end of the season. There were 1,406 tests, and no positive results.

The NHL testing period ends at the start of the playoffs and only resumes at the start of the following season, a five-month gap. Penn State University Professor Charles Yesalis offered the following blunt commentary on the NHL policy: “You would have to be an idiot to get caught under a system like that - an absolute moron”.

Similarly, the International Olympic Committee has been accused of lacking commitment to detecting drugs in sport. The Sydney Olympics was initially lauded as a victory for anti-doping campaigners. But more medals have been stripped from cheating athletes after Sydney than any Olympics before or since, including those from Marion Jones.

In part, people think the IOC lacks commitment because in 2000 it rejected new testing procedures that subsequently identified seven Sydney athletes using erythropoietin (commonly known as EPO).

The test was not recognised at the time, so the identities of the seven known EPO users have not been disclosed.

The above data suggest that incidence of doping is perhaps as low as less than half of 1% of athletes. But the true incidence of doping in sport is difficult to quantify. At one extreme, the answer is zero; at the other extreme the answer is everyone.

Ettore Torri, a magistrate and head of the Italian Olympic Committee’s legal commission on anti-doping, said of the Italian cycling team: “All the riders are taking drugs.”

Somewhat predictably, the truth probably lies somewhere in between those two positions. There isn’t likely to be one simple answer since doping is almost certainly more prevalent in some countries, in some sports and among particular types of athletes.

At any rate, by the time anti-doping testing laboratories have developed a test for a particular substance, users will have already moved on to another substance for which a test has not yet been developed. This has given rise to an often quoted maxim: “The cheats are ahead of the testers.”

What we do know is that if you want to know the incidence of drug use in sport, you shouldn’t assume the data from anti-doping laboratories, or the number of athletes caught at the London Olympic Games, indicates how many athletes are taking drugs.