SKIERS, skaters, ice hockey players and other snow-loving athletes have travelled to Pyeongchang for this year’s Winter Olympics to vie for supremacy. But the South Korean city is also the venue for another contest—one between the bodies responsible for anti-doping rules.

Last year, after tip-offs and suspicious test results in previous events, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned 43 Russian athletes from future Olympic competitions, stripping ten of them of medals they had won in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. In December, after an investigation into drug-screening records leaked by the former head of the Moscow Anti-Doping Laboratory, it accused Russia of state-sponsored doping. It barred the country from competing in Pyeongchang, condemning the “systematic manipulation of the anti-doping rules and system”.

That conspiracy’s existence could hardly have come as a surprise to the IOC. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), set up in 1999 to standardise rules across sports and regions, had already investigated Russia on suspicion of widespread doping. It had called for Russia to be barred from the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. But instead, the IOC disqualified a third of the team and allowed the rest to compete under the Russian flag.

This time round, no sooner had the IOC decided to bar Russia than it partially backtracked, inviting 169 of the country’s athletes to Pyeongchang as “Olympic athletes from Russia”. Then, a week before the games, a third international sporting body stepped into the fray. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, to which some Russian athletes had appealed, overturned bans on 28 and shortened penalties for 11 others. The IOC refused to accept its decision. As the opening ceremony approached, appeals and counter-appeals continued.

Banned practice

The row is symptomatic of a wider problem. As prize money and sponsorship deals get bigger, so do the incentives for coaches and athletes to find ingenious ways to cheat. But the agencies charged with stopping doping lack independence and money. The rules they are supposed to enforce are riddled with loopholes. The result is a system that looks tough on doping, without uncovering much of it.

There would be a lot to find. Though Russia’s institutionalised doping is probably an outlier, individual doping is rife throughout elite sport. In 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, WADA found nearly 2,000 violations, across 85 sports or disciplines and 122 nationalities. Athletics, cross-country skiing, cycling and weightlifting have all suffered repeated scandals. Sports less dependent on simple brawn and endurance, such as baseball, cricket and football, were once thought to be at little risk from doping; no longer. Even animals are at it. Last year four dogs who ran in the Iditarod, an annual long-distance sled-dog race in Alaska, tested positive for a banned opioid painkiller.

The number of banned performance-enhancers, now around 300, rises whenever another is discovered to be in use. They variously lessen pain, increase alertness, speed up recovery and encourage the production of muscle mass or oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Anabolic steroids, synthetic versions of testosterone that were the mainstay of state doping programmes in the Soviet bloc, remain popular. A newer development is blood doping—transfusing blood or taking a synthetic version of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone produced in the kidneys, to increase levels of red blood cells. Last week a database of more than 10,000 blood tests from 2,000 winter-sports athletes was leaked to the Sunday Times, a British newspaper, and ARD, a German broadcaster. Hundreds of skiers’ tests suggested they had used EPO. Some had blood so thick that they should have been in hospital.

Much of the doper’s skill lies in judging quantities and timing. The “Duchess Cocktail”, a mix of steroids created in Russia, is absorbed by swilling it in the mouth without swallowing. That shortens the period during which it can be detected by a blood or urine test. For some drugs micro-dosing—taking an amount too small to detect—can still give an edge. Or doping may happen before an athlete’s career starts in earnest, and thus before she falls under anti-doping rules. A study in 2013 by Kristian Gundersen of the University of Oslo found that the performance-enhancing benefits of some drugs can last a lifetime.

The use of diuretics, which increase urination and can mask performance-enhancers as a side-effect, is becoming more sophisticated. The development of “designer drugs”—compounds with similar effects to known performance-enhancers but undetectable in testing—means that the authorities are constantly running to stay still. Some athletes may already be using experimental gene therapies, says Paul Dimeo, one of the authors of a forthcoming book, “The Anti-Doping Crisis in Sport”.

On top of all that, anti-doping rules and enforcement are easy to get around. Exemptions for medical purposes are believed to be widely abused. Some athletes claim to be severely asthmatic, for example, to get permission to inject corticosteroids. Athletes can miss three tests in a year before facing suspension. Sometimes the testers seem incompetent or overwhelmed. On some days during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, almost half of all drugs tests were aborted because they could not find the athletes. 

Medal peddling

Occasionally, athletes may not know they have doped. Last July ten blind Russian powerlifters were banned for using methandienone, a steroid, although WADA accepted they might have been given it without their knowledge. But most know full well what they are doing, says Olivier Niggli, WADA’s director-general.

Not a tenth are ever caught, estimates Don Catlin, an anti-doping scientist. A study in 2014 estimated that 14-39% of elite athletes were doping intentionally. But only 1-2% ever test positive. At the Athletics World Championships in 2011, 0.5% of competitors failed tests. But in an anonymous survey by WADA, only recently published, 30% admitted to using illegal drugs in the year before the competition.

The failings of the drug-testing system mean whistleblowers are particularly valuable. But they are taking a big risk. Two former employees of Russia’s national anti-doping agency have died in suspicious circumstances, and two more are in hiding in America. The former director of the Jamaican Anti-Doping Commission, who exposed weaknesses in the country’s anti-doping agency before the 2012 Olympics, said she was called a “traitor” and had to move house after receiving threats.

Given the many difficulties, anti-doping authorities need formidable resources. They do not receive them. Their total annual budget, worldwide, is around $300m. For comparison, the total income of the world’s sporting federations and leagues is more than $50bn a year. WADA’s budget in 2016 was only $28.3m. “The answer is no, clearly no,” says Mr Niggli, when asked if WADA has enough cash.

WADA does few tests itself, instead co-ordinating national and regional anti-doping agencies, and international federations such as the IOC and FIFA, football’s governing body. Their standards vary from excellent to hopelessly compromised. WADA’s investigation found that Russia’s anti-doping authority colluded with government agencies—including the intelligence services—to “lose” dodgy results and substitute fake blood and urine samples for real, incriminating ones. It worked out how to open “tamper-proof” sample bottles with the aid of dentistry tools.

Even when governments or sports authorities are not corrupt, they may not be keen to uncover wrongdoing, says Mr Niggli. “There’s sometimes a lack of appetite for scandals when it comes to their own sport or their own country.”

WADA’s governance structure means that it struggles to act independently. Half of its funding comes from national governments, and half from the IOC. Its main committees are split in the same way. Since two-thirds majorities are required for decisions such as banning a country from events, either the IOC or a group of like-minded countries can stop it from setting a tough line, whether out of national pride, fear of putting off fans or sponsors—or simply the wish for a quiet life.

With doping so common and so rarely punished, athletes face an unappealing choice. They may not want to dope, but knowing that many of their competitors do, they may feel that they must, too. Tim Montgomery, an American sprinter who broke the 100-metre world record in 2002 in a time that was later ruled void because he had doped, described performance-enhancing drugs as necessary “to secure a real contract” and “worth the risk”.

That risk can be large. Between 1987 and 1990, 20 Belgian and Dutch cyclists suspected of using EPO died of heart attacks. Eight more died of heart attacks across Europe in 2003-04. A study published in 2007 of 52 East German athletes who had been given anabolic steroids in the 1970s and 1980s concluded they had suffered serious health problems as a result. A third reported considering or attempting suicide. The women suffered miscarriages and stillbirths at a rate 32 times that of the national population. Of their 69 surviving children, seven have physical deformities and four are mentally handicapped.

Cheat’s charter

Some hope that sponsors’ desire to stay clear of tainted names, and fans’ desire to see clean competition, could act as a check on doping. And indeed a sport may become less popular after a scandal—at least if broadcasters take fright. “Doping can have a large negative impact on coverage arrangements, and hence viewing figures,” says Kevin Alavy of Futures Sport + Entertainment, a consultancy. German free-to-air television stations stopped covering the scandal-hit Tour de France for several years, in part because of allegations against Patrik Sinkewitz, a German cyclist.

Yet when fans do learn about doping, they do not always seem to care much. One study found that a publicised doping violation in baseball led to a brief fall-off in attendance, but had no impact a fortnight later. When doping is common but has not yet come to light, it can make a sport more exciting and thus more profitable. In 1998 Mark McGwire broke baseball’s home-run record, boosting interest in the sport. He later admitted he had been on steroids.

The risk of sponsors or broadcasters pulling out if doping is revealed can even add an incentive to those with a financial interest in a sporting event to turn a blind eye. “Potentially you have a conflict of interest when policing sport and trying to get sponsors at the same time,” says Mr Niggli. Dick Pound, a former president of WADA, puts it more bluntly. Doping in sport, he says, is an “inconvenient truth that is denied, ignored, tolerated or encouraged”.

Some pin their hopes on “athlete biological passports”, which were launched in 2008. These record physiological trends, establishing baselines for an athlete against which suspicious changes can be spotted, even if testing picks up no banned substance. They could be far more effective than urine tests, says Andrea Petroczi of Kingston University in London.

But biological passports are expensive. So far they are barely used outside cycling, which has suffered a series of scandals. Only 28,000 passport samples were analysed across all sports in 2016. As long as the risks of being caught are low and the potential rewards of doping high, athletes who stay clean risk being outclassed.

Correction (February 16th 2018): A previous version of this article used the acronym "EPA" to refer to the synthetic hormone erythropoietin. The correct acronym is "EPO". Sorry.