It seems that doping scandals are still very much a part of big sporting events. There are the recent news about the Russian team at the Olympics, the Tour de France scandals, and I'm sure there are more. In the Russian case, for example, we're finding - years after the event - officials that are testifying to the widespread use of doping, including by gold medalists, and we're finding evidence that the analysis lab (run by Russian officials) was falsifying results.

I do not understand why this is still a part of sports. It seems that there's a simple solution: just test every participant in a sporting event, right on the day of the event, in a uniform/standardized way, by the same independent laboratory, with supervisors from the public (perhaps even broadcast to the public), instead of just selective testing by country-specific secretive and closed labs as seems to be the case now.

If for some reason the tests are prohibitively expensive, then make it a rule that tests will always be taken from people who score one of first 3 places in a given competition. Or run basic tests on every participant, and very extensive/thorough tests on the winners.

Why is this type of thing not done to put an end to doping once and for all? Or am I misunderstanding something?

3 Answers 3


The answer is simple, although you won't hear it in the media: it's financial.

Imagine a league like the MLB suddenly decides to test every one of its players on a given day. Immediately they end up having to suspend 5-15% of the league including many of their star players. This hurts the credibility of the league, and the credibility of every team in the league, and the only ones that lose are the MLB and its members themselves.

This means that there is no financial incentive for a league or organization to take drug testing seriously. There's only enough incentive to give the facade that they do so the credibility of the league or whatever stays in tact.

The only alternative is to set a hard deadline in the future in which players need to be clean by, and then implement consistent testing by that time, but in doing so the organization admits that their are dopers present now, and the league isn't testing them. So again they lose credibility.

And when a good number of athletes stand to gain huge benefits by doping the incentive is going to be there for them to continue doing so. A good example comes to mind, Jhonny Peralta of the Detroit Tigers was suspended for doping and then afterward signed a 50 million dollar contract.

With money like that available for players, and no viable way for leagues to maintain their integrity and effectively deal with the problem, it's not going away any time soon save outside intervention by a third party.

  • 1
    contract for 7 years at age 32. So now owners care a bit. But in actuality if only 5-15% of the players used an illegal substance - from enhancing to coke, uppers, pot, whatever... then the 85% would get substantial drug testing passed. As it stands that number has to be some where near 50% because the unions keep pushing testing off. And really there doesn't need to be a financial impact if the rules are written right - players don't get paid if caught but owners have to still distribute money (in capped sports).
    – Coach-D
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 3:07

It is not enough to test on the day of the competition, even if a 100% foolproof test for all illegal substances were possible.

A doping athlete can use a drug during the training period leading up to competition, then stop use in time for any traces to disappear from the body before the test is taken. But the effects on the body (e.g. increased muscle mass) will remain longer, giving an unfair advantage.

This is the reason that out-of-competetion testing is routinely carried out too, but this raises the problems of resources, of trusting local testing authorities, and of athlete rights and privacy, so it is very difficult to stop doping completely.

Regarding the top 3 places testing, I seem to remember an anecdote of some cyclist in the Tour de France making certain to finish 4th on a day that he had taken a stimulant due to testing the 3 podium positions, and only racing 100% for stage wins on clean days. I'm not sure if this is a true story or not, but it reinforces the point: if dopers know when the tests are going to be taken they will find a way to cheat without getting caught.


There are two good answers here that raise good points:

  • There is no uniformity across sports because the incentives are different in different sports. Canadian Coder's answer about MLB is a good explanation of why MLB's testing structure is much different from that of, say, swimming or cycling.

  • In the sports which do test extensively, as Fillet explains, in-competition testing is carried out in exactly the way you describe, actually even more extensively (e.g. there have been world championships and Olympics where literally every competitor has been tested at the venue), but because of the way the benefits of doping are accrued, in-competition testing is not sufficient by itself to detect doping. Out-of-competition testing - at times which are unpredictable to the athlete - is essential for detecting doping. (See John Brant's excellent piece on Eddy Hellebuyck for details on how a doper evaded testing for years.)

A lot of what you're seeing in the news these days is driven by two problems which aren't solved by comprehensive in-competition testing.

One is accessibility of athletes for out-of-competition testing, which is an issue in e.g. East Africa, where many elite distance runners train. Maintaining the infrastructure needed to get samples and test them in an unpredictable way is expensive, and despite some significant investment (e.g. by the World Marathon Majors) there still needs to be more funding to do this properly. Much of the negative news about Kenya from WADA has to do with the lack of testing infrastructure.

The other problem - and this is what we're seeing from Russia - is the presence (or rumored presence) of state-sponsored structures which facilitate doping on a national level. If anti-doping "agents" (for lack of a better word) are simply testing individual athletes, that's one thing; if they're contending with an entire system which is coordinating evasion of out-of-competition testing, that's entirely another. And the stories coming out of Russia about evasion of testing are real James Bond stuff: local police detaining testers in order to give athletes time to get away, or to invalidate the samples either environmentally (keeping them from being refrigerated) or by breaking the chain of custody, athletes giving their whereabouts as in closed "military cities" to prevent surprise visits from testers, etc. When the full apparatus of the state is employed in protecting dopers, the "arms race" between cheaters and anti-doping officials becomes very expensive, underlining Canadian Coders' point about finances.

So, the short answer to your question: in-competition testing happens and is pretty comprehensive, but it's not enough and the implications of closing the gaps are all expensive.

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