Top Sports Watchdog Turns to AI to Catch Doping Athletes

Illustration for article titled Top Sports Watchdog Turns to AI to Catch Doping Athletes

The World Anti-Doping Agency is considering using artificial intelligence to flag athletes potentially using banned substances to get unfair advantages.

“We’re having discussions on artificial intelligence going forward,” WADA’s general director, Olivier Niggli, told UK outlet iNews on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of promising things.”

Niggli, who became WADA’s general director in 2016, worked on the notorious McLaren Report, which implicated Russian athletes in an elaborate doping scheme that, the report asserted, was orchestrated by the Russian government. On WADA’s recommendation, Russia was banned from the 2016 Summer Olympics. As Niggli imagines, algorithms would be able to aid in future anti-doping efforts by analyzing the data from biological samples when athletes are tested for performance enhancing drugs.


“Only sophisticated algorithms would be able to spot the differences, which would allow the anti-doping organisations to focus on the right individuals,” Niggli told the outlet. “Anti-doping organisations would potentially get a lot of intelligence by being able to analyse a lot of this data and immediately spotting anomalies which are signs of maybe doping.”

Niggli wasn’t forthcoming on the types of things the AI would be trained to spot, but one way it could work is to record trends in hormones or neurotransmitters. So instead of simply testing for the presence of a steroid, for example, algorithms may flag that an athlete has concurrent spikes in testosterone, adrenaline, or other hormonal reactions tied to performance enhancement. Simply being flagged by the algorithm wouldn’t lead to suspension, iNews reports, but for further human review.

Niggli says he hopes to see AI become part of WADA’s screening system within the next five years.



Of course I have pages. I had pages five years ago. How anyone can believe I don’t defies belief.

Share This Story

Get our `newsletter`



I, for one, wish they would just throw out the pretense altogether and allow performance enhancement.

First, the line is totally arbitrary. EVERYTHING, from food to common medication is a “performance enhancing substance”, the line at which “supplement” becomes “drug” is totally arbitrary and meaningless in the scientific sense.

Second, it just creates an arms race to create better ways to cheat that are undetectable to current methods. It doesn’t actually stop bad actors, but instead gives them an advantage.

Third, there is still bias. The exact same levels of hemoglobin are legal if you get them by living for five years in the Himalayas, but illegal if you get them by using a medically-supervised hypoxic chamber, and in a grey area if you just spend part of every day with a grocery bag over your head... and the SAME level of hormones is legal if it’s caused by the fact you have a benign tumor on a gland, or a genetic abnormality, but illegal if you inject it? Right, that seems perfectly fair.

Fourth, there’s no scientific reason that we should prefer genetic abnormalities to scientific performance enhancement, or more dangerous “natural” methods of creating high blood cell counts or hemoglobin levels to medical ones.

Fifth, are we really looking for the best of the best the fastest of the fast and the strongest of the strong, or are we looking for “eh, close enough without doing too much actual science”? Should the olympic motto be “faster, but not that fast, higher-ish, a bit stronger”?

I, for one, look forward to the breaking of the three-minute mile, the 30-foot long-jump and the 8-second women’s 100-meter dash.