Lausanne: The World Anti-Doping Agency said new research findings expected this spring could suggest as many as 1 in 10 athletes who compete internationally may be doping.
Accepted wisdom, drawn from annual testing statistics, was that "maybe between 1 and 2 percent of athletes who are tested are cheating," WADA director general David Howman said Tuesday. "We think those numbers are more in the double digits."
WADA is supporting research projects into the prevalence of doping among international-level athletes, with findings expected to be released before the London Games in July.
"If there is more than 10 percent of the athletes in the world being tempted to take the shortcut by taking prohibited substances, then we`ve got an issue that is not being confronted as well as it should be," Howman said.
He gave no details about how the research is being conducted, the methodology, or who is conducting it. In a separate interview with The Associated Press, Howman stressed the research is not finalized and suggested it would be wrong to conclude that 10 percent of athletes who compete in London might cheat.
"People go to the Olympic Games very well prepared for a big event, knowing if they are going to make a mistake it is the worst shame they can bring upon themselves, their family ... (and) therefore less likely for people to take the shortcuts," he said. "The dopey guy is going to be picked up, and probably going to be picked up in pre-games testing. The real sophisticated guy might try to get away with it. But the program is going to be extensive."
WADA president John Fahey said in an interview there was "a concerted effort being made by most countries to weed out any cheats before they get to London; that`s to be encouraged."
"The likelihood of cheats succeeding in the London Olympics is somewhat remote."
Howman added "we should not be complacent, sit back and think, `We are only dealing with 1 percent or 1½ percent of the elite athlete population`" who are cheating. "It could be much higher, and the initial responses from this research indicates that it is."
He said it was "very easy to catch the dopey doper," but "the sophisticated doper is becoming harder to detect and that`s a big challenge for the anti-doping movement."
WADA wants more testing of blood samples from athletes, not just urine, and more testing for the banned performance-enhancer EPO. The 258,267 samples analyzed by WADA-accredited labs in 2010 produced only 36 positive cases for EPO, even though the substance is favored by cheats.
The reason for that low number seems to be that labs aren`t actually looking for EPO in many samples, apparently to save costs. Testing for EPO is considerably more expensive than for standard urine tests.
"Of course, you`re not going to get positive cases if you`re not even undertaking the analysis. That`s regrettable also and we`re going to do something about that," Howman said.
He added WADA would prefer labs "do fewer tests and make sure that each test counts."
Fahey added: "It just seems to me to be a tragedy that we are taking a sample and we are effectively saying there`s a percentage, that despite there being ingredients in that sample that are in the prohibited list, we are not going to find out because there are dollars involved."
Fahey also warned that mounting concern in sports about illegal gambling and match-fixing should not detract from efforts to catch drug cheats. He urged sports bodies and governments not to take their eyes off anti-doping "simply because there is another threat that seems to be gaining some momentum."