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August 7th, 2008
01:09 PM ET

Does sports drug testing work?

Watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta's report on drug testing.
Watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta's report on drug testing.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Chief Medical Correspondent

When an athlete is tested for banned substances, most of us have a certain expectation the result will come back positive or negative. And, based on that result, an athlete will either be innocent or guilty. But, it’s not even close to being that easy, according to a new article in Nature, written by biostatistician Dr. Donald Berry (Read study). Dr. Berry calls the science so “weak,” it is often impossible to tell whether an athlete, who has tested positive for a banned substance, really doped or not. Even as a student of statistics, this was pretty amazing to me, so I decided to look further.

Dr. Berry uses the example of Floyd Landis to make his point. Berry concurs Landis had an unusual test result, but argues that result is pretty meaningless. Here’s why: because Landis provided 8 pairs of urine samples, and assuming an approximately 95 percent specificity, the probability of all 8 samples being labeled “negative” is the eighth power of .95 or just .66 (66 percent).

If that’s a little too much math and science for you at this hour, here is the final conclusion: Floyd Landis’ test had a 34 percent chance of being a false positive!


Filed under: Dr. Sanjay Gupta • Medical News • Olympics
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. JC- Los Angeles

    I find it extremely interesting that most all athletes that have been found to be drug-ingesting cheaters have been outed after they competed in an athletic competition rather than before.

    The question shouldn't be "Does Sports Drug Testing Work?" but rather "Why Does Sports Drug Testing Work After the Competition Has Ended?"

    Barry Bonds? Oh go ahead, hit some home runs and break the record; we'll wait to throw you out until afterwards.

    Marion Jones? Go ahead, win the gold medals, the advertisers and the network needs the viewers; we'll take away the medals later.

    Floyd Landis? go ahead, climb all the mountains you want, ride all over France; we'll strip you of your championship after the checks have cleared.

    If Major League Baseball were to throw out the cheaters before the season started or before games, they would have to have an open casting call or pull people out of the stands to play.

    Classic Americana; would someone please show some backbone and throw out the cheaters ahead of time.

    August 7, 2008 at 11:25 pm |
  2. Franky

    You know Doc, this is why I'm upset with Baseball when all the "allegations" were coming out to who used the drugs or not. It was actually an investigation the Commish did. I'm telling you Doc, you don't know how upset I was! Not because people are "cheating" or anything else, but because of all people, the Commish didn't even bother taking action very, very early on. And now with Barry(Bonds) and Roger(Clemens) allegations, I've never been so proud at getting payback at baseball(by the way, I'm actually waiting an apology from the Commish to give me to me about the past......WAY PAST!).

    You know Doc, I actually wrote something like this a very long time ago. I'm not surprised at this, I'm not lying. Plus Doc, everyone has to admit, Science is evolving every day, I can't take that away...

    August 7, 2008 at 9:33 pm |
  3. Sharon from Indy

    Dr. Gupta:
    Sounds like drug testing for athletes is a lark. Are athletes playing poker with their careers when they pee in a cup? Or do they know by now how to get around it?

    August 7, 2008 at 6:16 pm |
  4. Gary Chandler in Canada

    Adults using performance enhancing drugs, of their own free will, is a far lesser evil than the rigorous and torturous 'athletic' training that some countries submit children too. It's child abuse, actually!
    The IOC condoned steroid use for decades because it assisted performance and was better for business. When the public spot light shone on it, they took 'measures'.
    It's time for a public outcry against enforced child labour in the Olympic movement.

    August 7, 2008 at 1:34 pm |
  5. Cindy

    While the drug testing system may not be perfect it does keep the sport cleaner than if there were no testing at all. So until there is a better way to do these test you have to stick with what is available.

    As for Landis....if he was cheating do you think that he would ever admit it in public? I mean come on! None of them do unless they are making a deal with the law to get a lesser sentence. He had something illegal in his urine or they wouldn't have banned him for two years and stripped him of his title since they say they err on the side of caution. If it was too little to notice then they would have given him the benefit of the doubt. Had to be more than he is letting on.

    Cindy...Ga.

    August 7, 2008 at 1:29 pm |