How Drug Testing Changed Skiing: Cheating, 1960-2021

Women’s downhill skiing in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Medal awards as follows: gold medal Tina Maze, silver medal Dominique Gisin, bronze medal Lara Gut. Image reproduced from Wikimedia Commons by M. Smelter.

Drugs changed skiing. And drug testing changed skiing even more, but not in the ways we think.

Undercover cheating has long existed in skiing. It started with vitamins, turning into suitcases of pills dragged along to skiing competitions, then turning into a multimillion-dollar industry of illegal blood transfusions. Even dating back to third century Greece, as stated in a 1995 Analytic Chemistry article, athletes would eat bread soaked in opium to increase endurance and reduce pain during competition. Cheating changed the game. And drug testing changed the game even more.

It comes as no surprise that competitive skiers love to win. They spend their entire life training for a moment on the podium holding their shining gold medal. The years of blood, sweat, and tears all represented in one tiny piece of medal. They will do anything for their one moment of fame and glory, the peak of their athletic career, the symbol that they have made it. They will do anything for this win, even cheat.

Stemming back to the early 1900s, doping became a trend for skiers. They utilized various enhancing drugs to build strength, increase endurance, and maintain competitiveness against other skiers who were taking drugs. In 1928 the International Athletics Federation (IAF) attempted to make a move to keep competitive sports clean. It became the first international federation to create rules and regulations banning doping in competitions, hoping to set a trend for other federations to follow. Soon doping was banned from all athletic competitions.

However, the written rule did not hold much weight. Athletes continued to use drugs to enhance their game; only now they went undercover about their behaviors. Unless anyone caught athletes taking drugs at the competition or had evidence of them doing so, they got off clean. The IAF attempted to change sports and skiing, but it had no weight behind its policies. In the end, rules without enforceable measures meant nothing to skiers who wanted to win. Skiers continued to dope without sanction. As stated by former Olympian Yevgeniya Pecherina in in the 2016 book Doping in Sports: Winning at Any Cost?, “99 percent of athletes selected to represent Russia [in the Olympics] use banned substances.”

It took the IAF thirty-two years to come to the realization that anti-doping regulations were ineffective without enforceable measures, so the IAF implemented drug testing. Drug testing was the biggest turning point for doping in skiing, forcing athletes to adhere to the rules and play fair by eliminating narcotics and stimulants from the competitive arena. The IAF’s implementation of drug testing altered competitive sports forever. In 1968 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued its first drug test at the Olympic games to all competing athletes. The competitive sport industry was changed forever— cheating would no longer be tolerated. At least, that is what the IAF thought when it started the trend of drug testing.

Since the 1960 implementation of drug testing, doping scandals in skiing have not wavered. Why is it that as new regulations arise, cheating becomes more prevalent?

It is not necessarily that cheating has all of a sudden skyrocketed with the addition of drug testing. Rather, skiers are now getting caught for what they had already been doing for years. Prior to drug testing, skiers saw drug-enhancement as fair game so long as they showed no noticeable signs of cheating. It initially appeared as though drug testing had solved the problem. In the 1968 winter Olympic games, the first with drug testing, no athletes were caught for cheating by drug enhancement. The common assumption was that the addition of drug testing scared athletes into complying with the rules that had long been imposed but not adhered to. However, as argued in Doping in Sports: Winning at Any Cost?, the fear of getting caught was real, but it was not enough to deter athletes from cheating. International federations and competitions thought athletes had stopped cheating because they knew they would get caught with this new drug test. At this point in time, the competition committees and federations thought its job was done.

The graph details the correlation between the amount of published articles reporting on doping and the frequency in which skiing was mentioned from 1900-2019. The image was created by Haley Rubin.

While these drugs tests did catch athletes from various sports, it did not appear as though cheating was occurring in skiing. When this drug test was implemented, no skiers were caught for cheating for several years. Was it that skiers were competing clean or that something else was happening entirely? The answer became clear years down the road.

Drug testing only forced skiers to become more creative. Competitions assumed the wrong kind of cheating that skiers were partaking in. The preliminary institution of drug testing was non exhaustive of the cheating measures accessible to skiers. Initial drug testing only looked for narcotics and stimulants. As Lauren DeFrancesco states in her 2004 article “The Faking of Champions,” Olympians were being tested at an increased rate, but they were mainly testing for growth hormones and steroids to increase muscle growth. For nearly twenty years, Olympic athletes were only required to give a urine sample. As stated by Thomas Murray, PhD, the director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Case Western Reserve University, the philosophy of drug testing is to never have a false positive and accuse an athlete of cheating when they are not. Federations stand by this philosophy “even if this means that some athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs may get by.”

This image is from a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) press conference in New Delhi, India on May 25, 2010 in which they are discussing drug-enhancement problems in competitive sport, their philosophy on how to manage this issue, and policies they use to regulate it. Image reproduced from Wikimedia Commons by Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport. Image found at:,_WADA,_Mr._David_Howman_addressing_a_Press_Conference_on_the_conclusion_of_7th_AsiaOceania_Region_Intergovernmental_Meeting_on_Anti_Doping_in_Sport,_in_New_Delhi_on_May_25,_2010.jpg

While urine samples caught some skiers for cheating, it was extremely minimal compared to other sports. This drug test did not target the main form of enhancement used by skiers: blood doping. This revealed that international federations failed to identify the creative means of cheating that athletes used. It was not until 1985 that the IOC banned blood doping and started taking blood samples to test for it. As argued by Karen Birchard ­in the 2000 article “Past, Present, and Future of Drug Abuse at the Olympics”, the IOC’s decision to institute blood tests was a landmark decision because it now had the ability to identify previously undetectable substances. Of the fifty-seven significant scandals of cheating in skiing, not one of them was before 1985, proving that the years of anti-drug regulations were useless without the blood test.

For years skiers were competing “fairly” because competitions did not really know what was going on, which was made clear by the fact that skiers were not being caught for substantial amounts of cheating for nearly twenty years. Blood doping started as a means to bypass the system. Skiers passed the urine samples because they were not taking narcotics or stimulants, they were instead paying doctors for blood transfusions. They knew they would pass the drug test without hindering their game.

Blood doping revolutionized cheating. These transfusions increased the red blood cell count in athletes’ bloodstreams. Red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen to the muscles and lungs. Blood doping increased the amount of oxygen available to use during exercise. In other words, skiers had better endurance because their lungs and muscles were able to access more oxygen. They could ski faster and longer without feeling the same exhaustion their competitors did. This type of drug enhancement was seen as a game changer for skiers and truly differentiated them on the slopes. However, the only way to catch blood doping was either through witnessing the transfusion or through taking and analyzing a blood sample. In fact, most of the recorded instances of blood doping are caught in person, as with Olympian Matt Hauke in this video: Even when the blood test was instituted, it was extremely hard for the competitions to prove athletes were doping. Every individual has a different red blood cell count, so athletes could deny doping and say that was their baseline number.

Blood doping, while significant, is only a microcosmic example of the ski industry. When the ban on drugs occurred nothing in skiing really changed. When drug tests were introduced, skiers switched to blood doping to avoid getting caught. No matter what the IFC or IOC does over the years, athletes continue to dope. While more skiers now get caught for doping, which explain nearly all fifty-seven major documented scandals, nothing has really changed. Skiers have even come out after retiring that they doped their entire career. Even though competitions have cracked down on anti-doping measures, skiers just get more creative with their cheating. As stated in the 2016 book Doping in Sports: Winning at Any Cost?, “athletes who decide to dope are more interested in how the drugs can help them win than in potential adverse effects” like health risks or competition sanction. So, what does this say about skiing and its future?

The graph details the correlation between the amount of published articles reporting on cheating and the frequency in which skiing was mentioned from 1900-2019. This graph allows us to predict future trajectories of cheating in skiing. The image was created by Haley Rubin.

If competitions are doing everything possible to keep skiing fair, but athletes continue to cheat, this reveals something greater about the sport. The love for skiing is not only in the activity itself and the enjoyment it brings, but about winning. The effects of the industry’s slow response to blood doping are everlasting. By waiting nearly twenty-five years ban doping, it has become mainstream in the community. Blood doping has become so normalized in the industry despite the regulations and testing, that athletes just assume everyone is cheating. As argued by Domhnall MacAuley in “Drugs in Sport,” drug enhancement in competitive sports will “never go away” because of the significant personal and financial rewards of succeeding. If all skiers similarly fear being at a disadvantage, how will anyone be incentivized to compete clean?

There are two potential routes this can take. The first foreseeable consequence is that athletes will dope at an increased rate. After training for their whole life and investing time and money, it is unlikely athletes will compete clean knowing they will be unable to keep up with skiers who dope. Secondly, skiers who deserve to win but do not dope will never see their dreams realized. Those who have high moral and ethical integrity will never be rewarded. Beyond cheating being unfair, there is no point to having institutions like the Olympics if cheating exists. Competitions like the Olympics, that are part of our worlds culture and have become an international pride for over a century, not to mention the billions of dollars they generate, are rendered illegitimate if everyone cheats.

Competing fairly is not just about passing drug tests, but about each athlete having the moral and ethical commitment to reinstalling the integrity of the sport by competing fairly regardless of the drug tests. Integrity is not garnered by forcing people to take drug tests— it is created by altering the mindset of the sport. In a monumental survey by Dr. Robert Goldman in the 1970s, elite athletes were asked what they would do if given the option to take an undetectable drug that ensured athletic success for five years but was followed by immediate and unavoidable death. Fifty percent said they would take this drug to win despite dying afterward.

The shocking part of the doping crisis in skiing is not the failure of international committees and federations to regulate the sport. According to Domhnall MacAuley in “Drugs in Sport,” there is now an exhaustive list of banned substances, prohibited methods, and classes of restricted drugs ranging from marijuana, to pills, to local anesthetics. Even with this detailed list, athletes still prioritize cheating and winning over upholding the future of the sport they claim to love. Athletes are willing to give everything up for a potential moment of glory on the podium. A moment of glory that is only upheld by a façade— the lack of integrity masked by competitive success.

Drugs changed skiing. And drug testing changed skiing even more. It showed people that our athletic icons, the people we worshipped, rooted for, and bet on, are not what we thought. Drugs changed skiing for the worse and we hoped drug testing would change skiing for the better, but all we are left with is the harsh reality that our heroes may be cheaters. 

Works Cited

“Athlete Drug Testing Receiving More Attention Than Ever Before in History of Competition.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 261, no. 25 (1989): 3510.

Birchard, Karen. 2000. “Past, Present, and Future of Drug Abuse at the Olympics.” Lancet 356 (2934): 1008. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)72630-1.

Chin, Abby. “Streamlining Doping Disputes at the Olympics: World Sports Organizations, Positive Drug Tests, & Consistent Repercussions.” Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution (2018): 463-489.

David, Paul. A Guide to the World Anti-Doping Code: The Fight for the Spirit of the Sport. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

König, Eugen. “Criticism of Doping: The Nihilistic Side of Technological Sport and the Antiquated View of Sport Ethics.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport (1995): 247-262.

MacAuley, Domhnall. “Drugs In Sport.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 313, no. 7051 (1996): 211-15. Accessed April 18, 2021.

McPherson, Stephanie. Doping in Sports: Winning at Any Cost? Minneapolis:Twenty-First Century Books, 2016.

Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. The Director General, WADA, Mr. David Howman addressing a Press Conference on the conclusion of 7th AsiaOceania Region Intergovernmental Meeting on Anti Doping in Sport, in New Delhi on May 25, 2010.jpg. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons.

Moller, Verner. The Ethics of Doping and Anti-Doping. London: Routledge, 2009.

Murray, Dale. “Ethics in Sport.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport (2019): 296-300.

“Performance-enhancing Drugs, Fair Competition, and Olympic Sport.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. 276, no. 3 (1996): 231.

Roblin, Yohan. Twitter. March 01, 2019. Accessed May 10, 2021.

Smelter, M. “Women’s Downhill, 2014 WOG.” Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. February 14, 2014.

“The Faking of Champions.” Nature Biotechnology. 22, no. 9 (2004): 1069.

“Uncertain Gold.” Analytical Chemistry. 67, no. 9 (1995): 319A.

Vorstenbosch, Jan. “Doping and Cheating.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport (2010): 166-181. Zorpette, Glenn. “All Doped Up—and Going for the Gold.” Scientific American 282, no. 5 (2000): 20-22. Accessed April 18, 2021.

Zorpette, Glenn. “All Doped Up—and Going for the Gold.” Scientific American 282, no. 5 (2000): 20-22. Accessed April 18, 2021.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *