Doping and the Prisoner's Dilemma

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Thursday, August 10, 2006
By Yokota Fritz


Update: Kenneth Norton provides good commentary on game theory and doping in sports.

Computer geeks like me are into game theory, and in game theory, the prisoner's dilemma is a type of non-zero-sum game in which two players try to get rewards by cooperating with or betraying the other player. In this game, as in all game theory, the only concern of each individual player is trying to maximize his own advantage, without any concern for the well-being of the other players. This scenario is called the Prisoner's Dilemma because it was originally framed in the context of two prisoners who are seperated and each offered a deal. If both prisoner's stay silent, they both go free. If one prisoner rats the other out, however, the snitch goes free while the other goes to prison.

Similarly, in sport competition, athlete's would rather not use drugs, but they know that the other guy will use drugs, and hence he feels he must also in order to compete "fairly."

Bruce Schneir is a computer security expert whose blog I follow. He writes in much more detail in doping in professional sports.


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Comments:
This is interesting and somewhat similar to the MAD theory pursued by the cold war protagonists of the last century, but in the end and whatever the motivation by the current rules of most sport it's still cheating.

The riders/athletes go into this nowdays with their eyes wide open to the rules of entry, but now when caught want to change the rules to suit them, i.e the process was flawed etc.

Now, if that's the case don't play, and similarly if challenged by the ethics and morality as presented here maybe the best choice is also to not play.

But then again as someone who just skirted the boundaries of pro sport (not cycling) and was not good enough to play in the show maybe I just don't undestand the motivations that drive you when you're there.

I'd like to think that I would have made the ethical choice not to play or just to play the best that I could and live with the result. Which is what I'm sure the majority of pro sport athletes choose to do.

Lastly, is it simply money and fame that drives athletes to cheat? If so those are two seriously ugly handmaidens on which to base your lifes ethical principles. In that event every doper deserves everything they get.
 
Hi Phil, I agree but I think what Norton wrote (linked to in the blog post) makes sense regarding motivation:

"Consider a typical pro cyclist (in Europe or America) -- he dominates at all levels, as a junior, as a U23, in the lower categories and eventually as a talented Cat 1. Eventually he's signed to a pro contract with a domestic or continental squad. He keeps on winning. Ultimately he's signed to a ProTour contract and enters his first Spring classic or stage race. Poof. Suddenly he finds himself surrounded by riders equal or better than he is. He finishes mid-pack or even off the back. The riders in the European pro peloton are many times stronger and faster than the riders at a level just below. He's like the arrogant college freshman who enters MIT only to find that everyone else was the valedictorian in their high school too. It's sobering and defeating."
 
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