Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Game Theory View of Doping in Sports

The most recent Scientific American offers an article by Michael Shermer that views sports doping from a game theoretical perspective. A few of the key ideas:
Game theory highlights why it is rational for professional cyclists to dope: the drugs are extremely effective as well as difficult or impossible to detect; the payoffs for success are high; and as more riders use them, a “clean” rider may become so noncompetitive that he or she risks being cut from the team.

The game theory analysis of cycling can readily be extended to other sports. The results show quantitatively how governing bodies and antidoping agencies can most effectively target efforts to clean up their sports.


  1. Why can people not win fair and square, it sure beats cheating. To cheat is not very sports man like.

  2. then apparently being "sportsmanlike" is not always rational or logical.

  3. I read the print version, and I thought this was a superb article. I have studied some game theory, and I was very impressed with how the writer showed how doping forms a Nash equilibrium of sorts, and how changing the payoff matrix for doping in sports is the only way to resolve this complicated problem.

    I agree with lewis, being sportsmanlike is quite obviously not rational or logical when the circumstances are as described in the article. And it is my opinion that moralizing (as done above by John) is completely useless in solving the problem, unless it translates into action.

    In other words, if we feel that it is undesirable for athletes to dope (either morally wrong, dangerous, unsportsmanlike, or however else we would like to define it) then the only way to stop it is to change the payoffs.

    I will admit that the remedies described in the article are quite extreme, and would require a true will to do something (which always translates into money). For example the suggestion to give high prizes to scientists to develop methods to detect new methods of cheating might require more money than is readily available to those bodies, associations and committees who currently most vocally oppose cheating. It would be up to us, the viewers. After all, why do athletes cheat? Because there are rewards. Why are there rewards? Because we spend resources to see them compete, because we find it entertaining. So, if we the viewers really want them to stop, then we will probably be able to devise a mechanism to make it advantageous to stop, to fund all those changes that the authors of this article are talking about.

  4. Well said. What interests me is the different reactions of different sports bodies to cheating. Cycling has been notoriusly tough on doping; but the NFL has tried to sweep the video taping scandal under the rug. Both are profit maximizing bodies, trying to cater to customer demand for "honest" competition.