An Australian research team involving the University of Adelaide and La Trobe University has been awarded funding from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to help combat one of sport’s biggest challenges: doping.
Professor Ralph Bayer (School of Economics, University of Adelaide) and Dr Liam Lenten (Department of Economics and Finance, La Trobe University) have been awarded $125,000 as part of the IOC's 2017 Anti-Doping Research Grant scheme. Using economic theory, their project will develop alternative measures that provide disincentives to doping.
Professor Bayer and Dr Lenten are determined to see the economics discipline exert greater influence on anti-doping policy, a realm typically dominated by various medical and behavioural sciences, and even sports management. They will test the relative effectiveness of a range of standard doping punishments and potential alternative policies, in terms of their ability to desirably influence athlete behaviour.
"One weakness of the currently operating system of bans is that it is not much of a deterrent for veteran athletes close to retirement," says Professor Bayer, who is Director of the Adelaide Laboratory for Experimental Economics.
He says a leading alternative to the current system is a conditional superannuation system. Under such a policy, athletes would be forced to deposit a fraction of their earnings into a superannuation fund. The athletes only receive payments out of the fund if, a certain time after retiring from the sport, they have not been found doping.
"Under the conditional superannuation policy, older athletes close to retirement, who are not likely swayed by the threat of suspension, would be financially far better incentivised to stay clean, as they will have accumulated a lot of superannuation and therefore have a lot to lose," Professor Bayer says.
"An additional potential advantage is that the policy still has bite if, as frequently observed, doping can only be detected a few years after it actually occurred."
The field of experimental economics offers the best way of ascertaining the policy proposals’ effectiveness, the researchers say.
"Field experiments in the form of randomised controlled trials are impossible, since doping is not readily observable and athletes in the same sport should not compete under different anti-doping rules. For this reason, our team will conduct laboratory experiments at the Adelaide Laboratory for Experimental Economics," Professor Bayer says.
Participants will be put in a game-like environment that simulates all characteristics of the real-world situation athletes find themselves in. They will be incentivised by cash payments that depend on how they perform.
"This is an innovative, practical project to combat an intractable problem with only imperfect solutions currently being offered. We hope our project will have potential further application to other forms of gross athlete misconduct, such as match-fixing," Professor Bayer says.
The researchers are expecting to complete their work by late 2018.