[ASC-media] A =?ISO-8859-1?B?jA==?=Super=?ISO-8859-1?B?uSA=?=Idea for Drugs in Sport Policy, Liam Lenten, Senior Lecturer in Sports Economics at La Trobe University

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Wed Jul 18 07:40:02 CEST 2012


A ŒSuper¹ Idea for Drugs in Sport Policy
Liam Lenten, Senior Lecturer in Sports Economics at La Trobe University

The Fränk Schleck revelation yesterday has given the cycling (and indeed the
entire sporting) world a palpable sense of disappointment. It proves to be
yet another demonstration of how simple suspensions and other penalties such
as fines, have collectively failed to stem the tide of performance-enhancing
drugs (PEDs), and with the Olympics imminent, this is a timely wake-up call.

While PED use pre-dates the modern Olympics, the sad history of drugs in
sport governance in the last half-a-century is that compared to the
behaviour of professional athletes and their entourages, policy has lagged
dreadfully behind on a perpetual basis.

To highlight the problem, a 1995 survey of 198 athletes (most US Olympians)
asked whether they would take a PED, with two guarantees: i) you will not be
caught; ii) you will win every competition you enter for the next five
years, and then you will die from the side-effects of the substance. More
than half the athletes said they would.

Cycling analysts have suggested that the only largely Œclean¹ Tour in recent
times was (after Armstrong¹s earlier retirement) in 2007, following reigning
champion Floyd Landis being stripped of his title. All 189 riders signed a
personal pledge that they were not using PEDs. The average winning speed
that year was the lowest since 1994.

While admittedly some riders appear to be beyond influence, incentive-based
mechanisms remain a viable solution to prevent other riders ­ the most
susceptible ­ from succumbing to the temptations of PEDs.

A fundamental economic problem with current penalties is that while they do
serve as a deterrent, they¹re not the same deterrent for all. The
opportunity cost of a 3-year suspension is far lower for a veteran at 32
(Schleck¹s age) than a promising 21-year old, making the older rider more
likely to dope. This is reflected by data on who actually gets caught.
Therefore, an auxiliary policy is needed to offset this age-profile
distortion.

The most compelling idea to target more experienced riders specifically is a
superannuation-style scheme whereby riders forego a nominal percentage of
their prize money and endorsements, to be placed into a managed trust fund,
and distributed back after a defined post-retirement period, but only if
they preserved a perfectly clean career record ­ if they¹re caught doping,
they lose it.

Economists are most interested in the incentives involved ­ this super
policy would incentivise older riders (with more savings) to stay clean, to
remain eligible to collect this nice nest-egg ­ an improvement on the status
quo given that anecdotally professional athletes often squander their wealth
while still competing.

In doing so, it would create some balance between stick and carrot,
intensifying the behavioural effect of existing anti-doping policies. The
policy also has potential applicability to other issues of gross misconduct
in sports, such as match-fixing in cricket.

But how can we ascertain the effectiveness of this policy proposal? The most
obvious candidate is within the field of experimental economics, using
experiments in computer laboratories, sounding out the extent of rationality
implied by economic theory, to describe athletes¹ risk preferences (in
settings approximating WADA and UCI rules).

Hopefully, this suggestion will stimulate debate among cycling¹s
rank-and-file.

Hopefully, this suggestion will stimulate debate among cycling¹s
rank-and-file. Despite sensible economic reasoning, any proposal must be
acceptable to every stakeholder group, including the cyclists themselves,
leaving ahead the challenge of convincing them of the policy¹s merits, given
natural resistance to change.

However, taking the precedent set by the Tour cyclists five years ago when
they signed pledges of cleanliness, refusing to consider (or participate in)
such a policy would risk making them appear hypocritical to fans everywhere,
who through their demand for the sport, provide the opportunity to make
cycling a viable profession.

Liam Lenten is a Senior Lecturer in Sports Economics at La Trobe University.
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