Friday, July 2, 2010

Game Theory, The Cycling Mafia, and Lance Armstrong

Michael Shermer has completed the Race Across America several times and was one of the founders and early directors of the race. In addition, he founded the Skeptic Society and writes a column for Scientific American nearly every month. He is also an adjunct professor of Economics at Claremont University.

Shermer wrote an editorial today in the LA Times that uses concepts from game theory to explain why pro sports turn to doping to begin with. It's fairly intuitive and sounds a lot like the analysis I gave when Floyd Landis first came out with his revelation. While Shermer doesn't use the fraud triangle, he talks a lot about incentive and opportunity. Here is his reasoning:

Players will do whatever they can to achieve victory, which is why well-defined and strictly enforced rules are the sine qua non of all sports. The rules clearly prohibit the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but the incentive to dope is powerful because the drugs are extremely effective, the payoffs for success are so high, and most of the drugs are difficult if not impossible to detect. If tests can be beaten with countermeasures, or if the governing body of the sport doesn't fully support a comprehensive anti-doping testing program (as in the case of Major League Baseball and the National Football League), the incentive to cheat increases. Once a few elite athletes in a sport cheat, their competitors must also cheat (even if they only suspect others are doping), leading to a cascade of cheating through the ranks.
Shermer also uses game theory to explain why Floyd Landis recently confessed to doping and spilled the beans on everyone from Lance Armstrong to Dave Zabriskie. It's an interesting explanation that explains why very few racers come forward to admit they are doping and why some former racers, such as Tyler Hamilton, have called Pro Cycling a "Cycling Mafia." Basically, Shermer explains that cycling is typically in a state of  "Nash equilibrium" where nobody will come forward as long as everyone has something to lose by coming forward. However, a state of disequilibrium can arise when someone, like Floyd Landis, no longer has anything to lose by coming forward. Shermer explains:
But when Landis lost his savings, his home, his marriage and his livelihood, he reached a state of disequilibrium, and when he was turned down from even riding in the Tour of California in May, he apparently decided that he had nothing left to lose and now wants to clear his conscience and clean up his sport. 
Shermer offers some good ideas for cleaning up pro cycling. His ideas basically involve creating conditions that make it more likely that a state of disequilibrium will exist. Here are some of his ideas.

  • Grant immunity for athletes who come forward today to encourage athletes to spill the beans so we can learn what is going on. (He points out that if everyone is doping, stripping one person of his title does little if all the runners up are also doping.)
  • Increase the amount of testing. (I would add, do a better job of surprise testing including tests without warning or any time to manipulate the results.)
  • Increase the penalty for getting caught (maybe a lifetime ban).
  • Provide an X-prize type of award for scientists who develop better systems to detect doping (good idea but I doubt we will see it anytime soon). 
Shermer makes the comment that cycling is ahead of most sports in getting cleaned up. I agree with him on that but also think it's kind of like saying that a someone with 25% body fat is in pretty good shape since he's better off than most of the population of Mississippi! In the end, comparing doping in cycling to doping football is not much of a comparison!

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