- An alarming number of sports—baseball, football, track and field, and especially cycling—have been shaken by doping scandals in recent years.
- Among the many banned drugs in the cycling pharmacopoeia, the most effective is recombinant erythropoietin (r-EPO), an artificial hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells, thereby delivering more oxygen to the muscles.
- 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.
For a competitive cyclist, there is nothing more physically crushing and psychologically demoralizing than getting dropped by your competitors on a climb. With searing lungs and burning legs, your body hunches over the handlebars as you struggle to stay with the leader. You know all too well that once you come off the back of the pack the drive to push harder is gone—and with it any hope for victory.
I know the feeling because it happened to me in 1985 on the long climb out of Albuquerque during the 3,000-mile, nonstop transcontinental Race Across America. On the outskirts of town I had caught up with the second-place rider (and eventual winner), Jonathan Boyer, a svelte road racer who was the first American to compete in the Tour de France. About halfway up the leg-breaking climb, that familiar wave of crushing fatigue swept through my legs as I gulped for oxygen in my struggle to hang on.
This article was originally published with the title The Doping Dilemma.