24 December 2020

WADA’s 2018 figures: 0.62% of tests result in ADRV

Analysis of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) 2018 figures reveals that just 0.62% of anti-doping tests resulted in an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) being asserted against an athlete. A 2015 review of studies examining the prevalence of doping in elite sports by respected anti-doping scientist Olivier de Hon estimates that between 14% and 39% of elite athletes are doping. It appears that the testing system is catching few dopers.

WADA’s 2018 Testing Figures Report reveals that 263,519 samples were collected in 2018, 2,771 (1%) of which resulted in an adverse analytical finding (AAF – or ‘positive test’). But a ‘positive test’ doesn’t automatically result in an ADRV. Some will be explained via therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) and in others, the athlete may be judged not to be at fault for the AAF.

WADA’s 2018 ADRV Report reveals that of those 2,771 AAFs, 1,640 were recorded as ADRVs, 0.62% of the total samples collected for the year. This percentage could rise as 316 samples are still pending, as can be seen from the breakdown above right.

The 2018 Testing Figures Report mentions a total of 4,896 AAFs from 344,177 samples collected, which doesn’t match the figures reported in the ADRV Report. On questioning, WADA said that these totals include the testing figures and AAFs from North American sports that are not Code signatories, and are therefore not reported into its Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS).

WADA pointed out that Table 3 of the Testing Figures Report separates out analysis performed on samples collected by North American non-Code signatories. Amongst these, analysis of 80,663 samples resulted in 2,126 AAFs, 2.63% of samples collected. It therefore appears that tests conducted by Laboratories for North American non-Code signatories are more successful in returning AAFs. Unfortunately, as the 2018 ADRV Report only includes test results reported into ADAMS, we do not know how many of these result in an ADRV. 

This isn’t the first year in which WADA’s figures have been reported in this way. The Executive Summary of WADA’s 2017 Testing Figures Report highlighted a 7.1% increase in samples analysed to 322,050; and 4,596 AAFs (1.43%). Table 3 of that Report details 245,232 samples analysed, plus 76,818 samples analysed in North American Laboratories for non-Code signatories (this totals 322,050). In the same manner as 2018, the 2017 ADRV Report excludes the North American non-Code samples, detailing 2,749 AAFs from 245,232 samples, resulting in 1,459 ADRVs (again, 0.6% of samples collected). 

Testing is an essential part of anti-doping. But it is expensive. Anti-doping organisations are notoriously coy about how expensive.

‘The unit costs, or the billed costs, of an A-sample analysis (including confirmation) are on average $267 (range $150-357)’, reads a 2006 WADA Study. ‘B-sample analyses cost $465 ($100-1760). The real costs of analysis, however, are quite often higher than the unit costs. This was reported by 75% of the responding laboratories. This means that doping control analyses are often “silently subsidized” by other institutions (for example, governments, universities, hospitals). On average, the real costs for these six laboratories are 24% higher than the unit costs.’ 

The average cost of sample analysis is likely to have risen since then, following the introduction of blood monitoring under the 2009 launch of the Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) and its Steroidal Module, introduced in 2014. In 2015, former UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) Chairman David Kenworthy told the BBC that a standard urine test costs £371 and an Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) test costs £439. This is significantly higher than the costs reported by WADA in 2006, even accounting for currency value differences.

Taking the lower estimate, in 2018 US$70.4 million was spent on testing, meaning that each ADRV cost an average of $43,000. To look at the figures another way, $69.6 million was spent on tests that didn’t result in an ADRV. 

Taking an average cost from Kenworthy’s higher estimates of £405 ($550), in 2018 $144.9 million was spent on testing, meaning that each ADRV cost an average of $88,400. Looking at the figures another way, $144 million was spent on tests that didn’t result in an ADRV.

This perhaps illustrates why anti-doping organisations are not keen on disclosing the costs of the testing system. On its face, it appears to be a waste of money. But the above analysis doesn’t take into account the effect on athletes of having a testing system in place. Knowing that you could be pulled aside by anti-doping officers at any point, or tested if you win a major race is a powerful deterrent against doping in elite sport. 

Athletes need to be reassured that doping cheats will be caught. Simply increasing test numbers doesn’t do this and as The Sports Integrity Initiative has previously highlighted, this approach can be used to mask organised doping. WADA’s figures appear to support this – spending more money on more tests does not result in catching a higher proportion of cheats. 

WADA knows this, which is why it has been pushing intelligent testing and education in recent years. It is why a requirement to actively investigate intelligence on doping has been incorporated into the 2021 Code. The message is clear – testing doesn’t catch determined doping cheats, but intelligence and investigations do.

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