What Sports Have the Worst Doping Problems?
With the first stage of the 100th Tour de France now behind us, the question that’s most top of mind is who will ultimately ride the more than 2,000 miles from Corsica through the Alps to Versailles and down the Champs-Élysées the fastest. But just as pressing is the question of whether anyone will be ...
With the first stage of the 100th Tour de France now behind us, the question that’s most top of mind is who will ultimately ride the more than 2,000 miles from Corsica through the Alps to Versailles and down the Champs-Élysées the fastest. But just as pressing is the question of whether anyone will be caught doping after doing it. After all, only three of the past nine winners of the race have never been suspended for taking performance-enhancing drugs. On Friday, Lance Armstrong, who is synonymous with the sport — and now with doping as well — went so far as to say that it is impossible to win the Tour de France without doping. The good news is that, so far at least, the last two winners of the competition did just that.
So how does cycling’s widespread doping problem stack up with other sports in the world? There is no perfect way to measure — across every league of every sport around the globe — which athletes down the most pills and inject the most prohibited substances. But the Olympics serves as a good proxy, and statistics from the World Anti-Doping Association, compiled by the Guardian last year, reveal the percentage of positive drug tests — results that either show the use of banned substances or prompt further investigation — for 26 Olympic sports between 2003 and 2010.
Over those eight years, cycling, with an average of 3.7 percent of test results turning up positive, emerged as the sport with the worst doping problem, followed by boxing (badminton had the lowest rate of the sports studied). Still, as you can see below, cycling has actually experienced a decline in positive tests since 2006, while sports such as hockey and table tennis have seen an increase.
Here’s a closer look at the five Olympic sports that, over the past five years, have averaged the highest percentage of positive test results.
1. Cycling (positive test results: 3.6 percent): Not only does cycling have the highest average level of doping findings in the Olympics, but the sport also has a track record of athletes following up vehement denials with tell-all confessions. In 2007, for instance, the American cyclist Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour de France after the second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-place finishers from the year before were all disqualified for doping, called charges that he rode to victory using synthetic testosterone "completely absurd." Three years later, however, he admitted to doping and accused his teammate Lance Armstrong of doing so as well. "Floyd lost his credibility a long time ago," Armstrong said at the time. Three years after that, Armstrong himself was tearing up next to Oprah and admitting that he used banned substances such as erythropoietin, testosterone, and blood transfusions while winning seven Tour de France titles in a row from 1999 to 2005. As Landis put it in February, "Professional cycling is organized crime."
2. Weightlifting (positive test results: 3.0 percent): It’s not entirely surprising that a sport requiring athletes to lift as much weight as possible is prone to cheating scandals. In 2012, the Albanian weightlifter Hysen Pulaku had the dubious distinction of being the first athlete of the London Olympics to be caught doping (his coach and uncle claimed that he and Pulaku simply did not know how the steroid stanozolol ended up in the weightlifter’s body). One of the more extraordinary cases came in 2004, when three Turkish weightlifters accused former coach Mehmet Ustundag of sexual assault and forcing them to take steroids. At the time, Ustundag was still coaching Olympic gold-medal winner Nurcan Taylan, who came to her coach’s defense by attacking the three accusers. "They have no culture," she said. "I am educated and cultured. I am physically more attractive than they are as well. I have gone down in history as the first Turkish woman to become an Olympic champion. They are jealous of my success as well as my beauty." Taylan was later temporarily banned from the sport for four years for steroid use.
3. Boxing (positive test results: 2.9 percent): In one of boxing’s more bizarre cases involving doping, a 2007 raid by U.S. law enforcement officials uncovered a list of patients at an "anti-aging clinic" believed to be illegally distributing steroids. The list did not include Evander Holyfield, one of the most famous names in boxing, but it did include an "Evan Fields," who had the same birthday as Holyfield and a similar address. When reporters called the phone number listed for Fields, Holyfield answered. The champion boxer, for his part, denies using steroids and launched his own investigation into his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs after the accusations surfaced. He continues to deny ever using steroids. Boxer Vitali Klitschko, meanwhile, revealed in his 2004 autobiography that he took steroids in 1996 and was thrown off the Ukrainian team before the Atlanta Olympics. He is now the World Boxing Council’s reigning heavyweight champion of the world.
4. Triathlon (positive test results: 2.7 percent): Interestingly enough, the competitors caught doping in this grueling sport are often not at the top of the sport. Kazakhstan’s Dmitriy Gaag, who finished fourth in the 2000 Olympics before dropping to 25th in the 2004 Games, was suspended for using erythropoietin, a hormone that increases red blood cell counts, in 2008. Brazil’s Mariana Ohata, who did not finish the contest in 2000 and was 37th in 2004, was banned from competition for six years in 2009 for using furosemide — her second doping violation.
5. Baseball (positive test results: 2.5 percent): Olympic baseball is certainly not at the center of the sport, especially since it was discontinued as an Olympic event after the 2008 Games. Still, baseball yielded one of the highest percentages of positive test results in the years before it was eliminated. And steroid use in Major League Baseball was almost certainly worse than in the Olympics (the MLB did not even have steroid testing with penalties until 2004). The tests have been strengthened since then, and the situation appears to be improving relative to the dark days of the 1990s and early 2000s. Just as the sport seemed to be turning the corner, however, it came to light in June that the league was seeking to suspend about 20 players, including stars Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, for alleged involvement in a steroid ring.