When equilibrium’s off, doping cyclists come forward


Saturday is the beginning of the Tour de France, one of the world’s premier sporting events. This year’s race may be one of the most, if not the most, epic in its 97-year history, with no fewer than a dozen contenders for the podium’s top spot, including the legendary Lance Armstrong and his chief rival and last year’s winner, Alberto Contador. Unfortunately, the pall of doping hangs over the event, especially since the disgraced 2006 winner, Floyd Landis, recently accused Armstrong and several other riders in this year’s race of systematic doping in previous years.

According to Landis, the performance-enhancing drugs of choice are recombinant erythropoietin to artificially stimulate the production of oxygen carrying red blood cells; steroids and human growth hormone for recovery and the development of lean muscle mass; and blood boosting, the withdrawing of your own blood early in the season and then re-injecting it during the tour to boost your red blood cell count. After the scandals of the last dozen years, most people — reluctantly, me included — believe that many, if not most, professional cyclists dope. The deeper question is why? And why did Landis come clean after all these years of vociferous denials?

The answer comes from game theory and something called the Nash equilibrium, conceived by the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash (of “A Beautiful Mind” fame), in which two or more players reach an equilibrium when none has anything to gain by unilaterally changing his or her strategy, as long as the other players do not change their strategies.

Here’s how it works in sports. Players will do whatever they can to achieve victory, which is why well-defined and strictly enforced rules are the sine qua non of all sports. The rules clearly prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but the incentive to dope is powerful because the drugs are extremely effective, the payoffs for success are so high, and most of the drugs are difficult if not impossible to detect. If tests can be beaten with countermeasures, or if the governing body of the sport doesn’t fully support a comprehensive anti-doping testing program (as in the case of Major League Baseball and the National Football League), the incentive to cheat increases. Once a few elite athletes in a sport cheat, their competitors must also cheat (even if they only suspect others are doping), leading to a cascade of cheating through the ranks.

If everyone is doping, there is equilibrium if and only if everyone has something to lose by violating the code of silence. In criminal organizations such as the Cosa Nostra in 19th century Sicily and the Mafia in 20th century southern Italy, the code of silence is called omerta, an agreement among members that if you get caught, you keep your mouth shut and fall on your sword. Something like the omerta code operates in the dirty underbelly of doping in sports, in which a positive test leads to an obligatory statement of shock and denial by the guilty party, followed by a plausible explanation for how the drug mysteriously appeared in the blood or urine, ending in fines paid and/or time served and often eventual return to the sport, no names named.

Disequilibriums can arise when not everyone is doping, when the drug testers begin to catch up with the drug takers, or when some cheaters have nothing to lose and possibly something to gain by turning state’s evidence. Which brings us back to Landis and his former teammates, who, if Landis’ charges are true, have been in a state of relative Nash equilibrium for a decade. Landis said in his admission: “I don’t feel guilty at all about having doped. I did what I did because that’s what we [cyclists] did, and it was a choice I had to make after 10 years or 12 years of hard work to get there, and that was a decision I had to make to make the next step.” But when Landis lost his savings, his home, his marriage and his livelihood, he reached a state of disequilibrium, and when he was turned down from even riding in the Tour of California in May, he apparently decided that he had nothing left to lose and now wants to clear his conscience and clean up his sport.

Can cycling (and other sports) be freed of doping? Yes, but it won’t be easy. From my 20 years as either a racer in, or as the director of, the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America, I have five recommendations:

• Immunity for all athletes pre-2010. If the entire system is corrupt and most competitors have been doping, it accomplishes nothing to strip the winner of his title after the fact when there is a high probability that the runners-up were also doping. Immunity will enable retired athletes to work with governing bodies and anti-doping agencies for improving the anti-doping system.

• Increase the number of competitors tested, in competition, out-of-competition and especially immediately before or after a race to prevent counter-measures from being used. Sport sanctioning bodies should create a baseline biological profile on each athlete before the season begins to enable proper comparison of unusual spikes in performance during competition.

• An X-Prize type of reward to increase the incentive of anti-doping scientists to develop new tests for currently undetectable doping agents.

• Substantially increase the penalty for getting caught. Manny Ramirez’s 50-game suspension out of a 162-game season last year was a joke. Players will not take that seriously as a deterrent. Professional cycling has a two-year ban, which is a good start. But it’s not enough.

• A return of all salary paid and prize monies earned by the convicted athlete to the team and/or its sponsors and investors, and extensive team testing of their own athletes.

Cycling is ahead of all other sports in implementing these and other preventative measures, and still some doping goes on, so vigilance is the watchword for fairness.

Michael Shermer is an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University, the publisher of Skeptic magazine and a monthly columnist for Scientific American. His latest book is “The Mind of the Market.”