Cash bonuses for clean athletes: a better way to fight doping?

At the University of Adelaide’s experimental economics lab, a group of researchers are conducting a raft of experiments into doping deterrence. It’s time to try something different, the researchers propose. Time to use incentives, rather than punishment, to stamp out doping. Wave a carrot, don’t brandish a stick.

The group is led by Dr Liam Lenten of Melbourne’s La Trobe University. Thanks to a research grant from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Dr Lenten and his colleagues are testing whether doping could be reduced by way of a “conditional superannuation” scheme for elite athletes.

The concept is simple. Like a retirement fund or pension, superannuation involves setting aside money for use later in life. In a sporting context, conditional superannuation would require athletes to put aside a percentage of what they earn throughout their career (prize money, salary and endorsements). The athletes wouldn’t get access to the money again until several years after their retirement, and only then if they’d managed to stay clean throughout their career, and in the years afterwards.1

Could it work?

In practice

The concept of conditional superannuation isn’t exactly new — it was proposed by researchers as early as 1979 — but unlike previous discussions on the subject (and other novel approaches to the doping problem), Dr Lenten and his group aren’t just saying their method could work — they’re testing it to see whether that’s actually the case.

In a pilot study, the findings from which have been published in the Journal of Sport Management, 270 subjects took part in 12 experimental sessions that, Dr Lenten says, reflect the way an elite athlete would train throughout their career.

“In sports there’s this notion of an increasing marginal cost of effort,” he told CyclingTips. “As an athlete you’ll generally just try and get the best of yourself, but once you’re near your maximum effort it costs you even more the closer you get to that threshold of what you can possibly produce. So we designed the experiments incorporating that into the model.”

Those experiments required study participants to add increasingly difficult strings of numbers together.

“They start with one that’s got two, single, randomly generated digits — seven plus four; so they’ll type in 11. Done,” Dr Lenten explained. “And then the next one will have three digits. So five plus one plus six. And if they get that one correct then the next will have four digits, and so on.”

The reward for completing each sum was the same, meaning that the more puzzles the participants completed, the more effort they’d have to put in for the same reward. In this way the experiment mirrored the diminishing rewards elite athletes get with their training as they get stronger.

The study participants were rewarded for how many strings they were able to add together in an allotted timeframe, but also for how much time was left over at the end. As a result, the participants realised that, at a certain point, it was optimal for them to stop “training”.

Crucially, the study participants — undergraduate students — were incentivised to do as well as they could. Each participant was paid for their time, but the amount they were paid varied according to how well they did in the experiment.

So how was doping incorporated into the study?

“Before they start they’re given a little message on their screen saying ‘You’re about to do this exercise. We’ve had the instructions read out to you. How would you like the chance to, whatever score you get, boost that by X percent?’,” Dr Lenten said. “And it’s a yes or no question. So if they choose yes, it simulates doping.”

Dr Lenten and his colleagues crafted four scenarios in the experiment, to help compare the impact different conditions would have on doping:

It’s this last condition that the economists are most interested in.

“In that particular case [of conditional superannuation] the text message gives some extra information like ‘You’re going to do this exercise. Z percent of your earnings from this will be withheld. But if you decide to take the boost there will be, again, Y percent chance you’ll get caught and those savings will not be returned to you at the end.’”

Dr Lenten and his team uncovered some promising results. As they write in their Journal of Sport Management paper: “The outcomes demonstrate that in an experimental policy simulation, a conditional superannuation policy is likely to result in a lower likelihood of doping (compared with other standard punishments), without compromising the intensity of athletes’ competitive efforts.”

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of study participants — nearly 90% — chose to “dope” when there was no punishment in place. Some 31% doped when a ban was in place2, 18% cheated when they faced a fine if caught, and only 11% chose doping in the case of conditional superannuation (“CSF” in the graph above).

Beyond these promising initial results, Dr Lenten and his colleagues believe there are other benefits to be had from a conditional superannuation scheme. Firstly, funds confiscated from those who still decide to cheat could be used to pay for other anti-doping measures3. Secondly, as the Journal of Sport Management paper reads, the money that’s set aside could be invested, benefiting the athlete in the long term: “This retirement sum could be placed under professional fund management, ensuring that athletes return the best yields and possibly receive advice on the careful oversight of other income and investments.”

Is it realistic?

It’s relatively easy to propose an alternative approach to anti-doping, but it’s much harder to show that that approach would work in reality. It’s even harder again to show that such an approach would be feasible in the context of organisational politics and existing anti-doping paradigms. Dr Lenten and his colleagues acknowledge that for their approach to see real-world use, it would need to fit alongside existing measures, while also making financial sense.

“Any changes to policy incur ‘adjustment’ costs,” the researchers write. “As a result, trialing a conditional superannuation policy would only proceed if sufficient evidence demonstrated that the benefits in reducing doping violations exceeded the adjustment costs.

“Although a conditional superannuation scheme may appear attractive in theory, only objective evidence can provide a suitable characterization of the policy’s likely effectiveness.”

There are, of course, some challenges to consider. In particular, it seems very unlikely that riders would be in favour of the scheme. While Dr Lenten and co are keen to frame the superannuation scheme as providing clean riders with a post-career bonus, it will be hard for riders to shake the feeling that their money is being withheld.

The researchers acknowledge the scheme would face initial resistance, but believe there is cause for optimism.

“Some precedent does suggest that securing agreement can be achieved,” the researchers write in their paper. “A prominent example can be seen in the 2007 pledges made by Tour de France cyclists declaring their drug-free participation.”

In that year, all riders in the Tour signed a pledge, saying they’d pay a year’s salary to the UCI if they tested positive. While the riders signed the document, it didn’t seem to stop riders from doping — several riders tested positive in what was one of the Tour’s most controversial editions.

More importantly though, attempts later that season to get riders to sign a similar anti-doping pledge failed spectacularly. Ahead of the 2007 Road World Championships, reigning champion Paolo Bettini refused to sign the pledge, describing it as “extortion”. The organisers of the Road World Championships went to court in an attempt to force all riders taking part in the elite men’s road race to sign the pledge, but lost the case. Bettini went on to win the race for the second year in a row.

Another challenge facing the conditional superannuation scheme relates to the participants that took part in the study. While the study simulated the choices facing elite athletes, the participants themselves weren’t elite athletes. Would elite athletes make different choices than the undergraduate students, therefore providing different results? That’s something Dr Lenten and his colleagues are interested to investigate.

“You could argue ‘Well, yeah is that really representative of how professional athletes think?’,” Dr Lenten said. “One of these ideas we’ve had [is] taking it to the next level and getting professional athletes in the lab and trying to replicate the results with professional athletes.”

Next steps

So what are the chances of conditional superannuation being implemented in professional sport? At the moment, “really minimal”, according to Dr Lenten. But it’s still very early days for this project.

“We want to be able to get some scientific evidence on whether the [reality] matches that nice intuition [that conditional superannuation would reduce doping],” Dr Lenten said. “Now if the answer to that is that it probably wouldn’t work, well we need go no further. And then [we] start to try and think of other ideas. If the findings tell us there could be something to this, we would then proceed to the next level [and we might] consider actually trialling it somewhere.”

For the moment though, there are more trials to complete. After the initial pilot study discussed in the Journal of Sport Management paper, Dr Lenten and his group are expanding their research under the IOC grant.

“This IOC one will then take the next step and look at how these results might change under a range of different possible parameter settings from our model,” he explained. “What you saw was basically based on one single set of possible values. There’s a whole story as to why we chose the values that we chose but we’d like to get some test of robustness there.

“If, for example, we went from a one-year ban to a two-year ban, the main results don’t change. And then, if it’s a 5% superannuation contribution instead of 10% for example – would the main result change?”

The IOC grant runs until mid-2019, after which the economists will be able to see whether their latest data matches that from their pilot study. If that’s the case, Dr Lenten could see potential in the IOC working to help trial the scheme in a sport or two.

“The governing bodies do have, in a lot of cases, the power to mandate their athletes that ‘If you want to be part of the business then you have to sign this piece of paper saying that you’re willing to forego, say, 10% of your earnings under these conditions. You’ll get them back so long as you don’t dope.’,” Dr Lenten said. “And that would then be the next phase. And then if you trial it and it works, well maybe some of the other sports governing bodies might eventually go in.”

But Dr Lenten admits there’s still plenty of work to be done. For now, he’s focused on collecting as much data as he can.

“My remit is purely to gather scientific evidence without fear nor favour, to see whether it might work,” he said. “And then after that it’s up to the guys that run sport.

“But certainly, in its current form there’s no way you can go to all these sports governing bodies and convince them. It would have to be a softly-softly approach.”

Moving forward

While the work on the IOC-funded grant continues apace, Dr Lenten and his team are looking to other projects as well. They’ve applied for a grant through the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to investigate “entourage effects” on doping. They also see some potential in the use of conditional superannuation to combat match fixing.

But for now, the focus is on doping. And more specifically, on proving whether conditional superannuation could work as the pilot study seems to suggest it might.

“It’s a problem we haven’t solved yet but progress is being made I guess,” Dr Lenten said. “We’ve convinced someone like the IOC that money needs to be invested into research to look at new ideas. Lord knows the status quo hasn’t worked that well.

“It seems that the cheaters are always a step ahead of the regulators and coming as an economist I would always say that you can punish all you like — take the punitive approach — but why not use incentives?

“The conditional superannuation can be framed to athletes more as an incentive to stay clean rather than just another punitive measure on top of all the others.”

Footnotes

1. Retroactive anti-doping testing can often detect substances that weren’t originally detectable.
 
2. Doping under the ban condition seemed to be more prevalent in the final session as participants worked out that receiving a ban at that point meant little — they were finishing the experiment anyway. Dr Lenten believes this mirrors athletes’ approaches to real-world doping: “That’s obviously one of the things we know about bans becoming a bit of a crocodile with rubber teeth with respect to 33- and 34-year-old veterans close to retirement. They figure that if they’ve decided to dope, the threat of a three-year ban’s not going to make them change their mind and go clean.”
 
3. As Dr Lenten and co write in their paper: “Conducting and processing a single anti-doping test in an industrialized nation has been estimated at a minimum of USD 1,000 (AU$1,310).”