Economics help explain cycling’s doping scandal

Well, after almost 20 years of wondering, now we all know.

We know that there is a mountain of allegations that Lance Armstrong doped.

Allegations were started by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in the 1999 Tour de France. But it is alleged that Armstrong doped well before that. Indeed, some allege it is steroids that induced his cancer – so that’s what they mean by “cancer therapy.”

There is no point examining all the reports, allegations and bullying or the relationship with a suspect team manager. No, I’d rather discuss the economics of doping.

Doping is a choice.

Basically there are two ways to look at this choice: game theory and as a dynamic-optimization problem.

Let’s consider the game theory part first. Many of the riders testimonies can be boiled down to: “Everybody was doing it. We were getting destroyed. We needed some health ‘supplements.’”

Ah, the mutually assured destruction approach – basically an application of the prisoner’s dilemma. In its easiest application, two prisoners each will make the least best decision for themselves. Both will dope until they die.

But cycling is a different animal. It has dynamics. That is, I win today and you win tomorrow. But to ensure that you don’t win, I dope, and to make sure I don’t win, you dope. And so it escalates.

The U.S. Postal Service team carried that to the ridiculous, with SWAT-like lookouts on roofs armed with binoculars and cellphones scanning the streets for International Cycling Union drug squads. You can’t make this up.

Sounds like the ridiculous notion that two countries will arm themselves so much that they could destroy the globe several times over.

I know since you read “dynamic optimization” you have been chomping at the bit, so here we go.

Historically, many professional athletes come from low-income households with less education and little prospect beyond working in the fields or a factory floor. They make a choice, take a stab at bicycle racing, a notoriously brutal sport, which allows them escape.

But they also know there is little chance for them to earn a decent income in their twilight years. So they wish to make their entire lifetime income when they’re young and then retire. Retiring at age 30 is hard when you make $20,000 per year. So you need to get better results, get on a better team and earn more.

Why not try to get an edge?

Clearly, this applies to almost everyone: low-income kids in the United States playing football or basketball – some even diversify their portfolio and do both. Stockbrokers, the list goes on.

A logical question is why is cycling so picked on. Why not football, baseball, soccer?

Too much money.

There is no way the NFL, Major League Baseball, or FIFA would let its athletes be checked that much. Entire teams would be on trial.

We know.

sonora_t@fortlewis.edu. Robert “Tino” Sonora is an associate professor of economics at Fort Lewis College and the director of the Office of Business and Economic Research at Fort Lewis College.

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