PROFESSIONAL athletes pay a high price for their pursuit of excellence and glory. Training to the limit tears muscles and wears out joints. Gymnasts often need hip replacements when barely into middle age. Few footballers make it to the end of their careers with their knees intact.

But many also run a darker risk: doping. The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, in South Korea, starts this week in its shadow. Years after whistle-blowers first revealed wholesale doping in Russia, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at last decided to bar it from taking part. But it has allowed many Russians to compete as individuals. And on the eve of the competition the Court of Arbitration for Sport said that 28 others should receive a more lenient penalty from the IOC, further muffling the anti-doping message.

Russia’s doping is unusual only in its scale and institutional nature. No country or sport is immune (see page 57). Studies, and an anonymous survey at the World Athletics Championships in 2011, suggest that a third of athletes preparing for big international competitions take banned substances. Yet just 1-2% fail a test each year. Lance Armstrong, a cyclist who won the Tour de France seven times and later admitted to doping all the while, was tested on 250 occasions. The few times he failed, he avoided sanctions by claiming he had taken anti-inflammatories for saddle-sores.

Doping is more sophisticated than when communist states used steroids to bulk up athletes. New drugs are designed to be undetectable in a blood or urine sample. Many athletes “blood dope”, receiving transfusions or taking a drug that stimulates the production of red blood cells to improve their stamina. Russian cheats “lost” test records in state-run labs and opened “tamper-proof” sample bottles with dental instruments.

Athletes who take banned substances put their health at risk. Soviet athletes who were fed steroids suffered a host of serious problems in later life. They were more likely to commit suicide, or to miscarry or have a disabled child. No one knows what risks those taking new “designer” versions are running. Blood-doping can cause heart attacks; more than a dozen cyclists’ deaths have been linked to it. Some unscrupulous coaches dope promising teenagers, before they are ever subjected to testing. The performance-enhancing benefits will last into their future careers. So will the damage.

The agencies that set out to stop doping are hugely outclassed. As the backtracking and bickering over sanctions on Russia illustrate, they are divided and weak. Most testing is done by national bodies, which may not try very hard to find evidence that would get their own stars banned. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which oversees them, is packed with officials from national sports federations and the IOC. Their interests are likewise conflicted. Its budget is tiny. The system seems to be designed to look tough but punish only the occasional scapegoat. Honest athletes deserve better.

Don’t throw in the towel

Fixing doping means fixing incentives. WADA needs money, and to be independent of the sports officials who currently call the shots. Then it could improve testing and carry out more investigations—Russian doping was proved after whistle-blowers raised the alarm. “Athlete biological passports”, which monitor a range of markers in blood, show promise.

Above all, the punishment for doping should be severe and certain. No Russians should be competing in Pyeongchang after their country is known to have attempted wholesale fraud. Athletes should not have to choose between risking their health or being beaten by a cheat.