WADA hopes to use artificial intelligence to catch dopers

Is AI the key to tracking down the cheaters?

(Image credit: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

For years, anti-doping authorities have struggled against the ever-evolving campaigns cheaters use to gain an advantage.

Cycling’s history can be traced back by the developments in banned substances, from amphetamines to blood boosters and transfusions.

While those chasing the dopers have been able to evolve their methods in response to the changing tides, the use of performance enhancing drugs continues to blight the cycling world, as proven by the recent Operation Aderlass blood doping scandal.

>>> Raúl Alarcón provisionally suspended by UCI over suspected doping violation  

But the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is turning its eye to a new method of detecting who is using clandestine methods to gain an advantage – artificial intelligence.

WADA and the Fonds de recherche du Québec (Québec research fund) announced this week that it has handed over funding to three separate projects that will explore the possible uses of AI in the fight against doping.

Dr Olivier Rabin, the senior director for sciences and international partnerships at WADA, said: “AI is an exciting area to be explored and WADA believes there is enormous untapped potential for its use within anti-doping, particularly when it comes to the analysis of big data.

“In time we think it could have a hugely positive impact.”

Dr Rabin added: “These three complementary projects will help shed some light on the extend of AI’s potential in the anti-doping context and we are pleased to be able to support what we hope will be important pieces of research.”

WADA’s innovations in anti-doping in the last few decades have included out of competition tests, introduced in 1994, the Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) system and the athlete biological passport.

But now the agency is looking to AI as the next step in the ongoing struggle against dopers, with research being carried out into both potential uses for the technology and how it will be viewed by athletes and the public.

The first of these projects is with Dataperformers, a company founded in Montreal, Canada in 2013, in collaboration with a WADA-accredited lab in Paris.

This research will explore the possibility of using AI to detect the use of prohibited substances and methods.

If successful, artificial intelligence could be used to analyse data collected through WADA’s athlete biological passport programme, which currently uses and ‘adaptive model’ algorithm to determine whether an unusual test result is the result of a normal physiological condition, or related to performance enhancing drugs.

The second project WADA is funding will be carried out by Element AI, also based in Montreal, which will explore the risk of doping in athletes through the technology and then develop a sampling and testing method based on algorithms.

>>> UCI to explore ‘new avenues’ to step up fight against doping

Finally, the Centre for Genomics and Politics at McGill University in Montreal will look into how using AI to combat doping would be viewed by different stakeholders, in the hopes of guiding conversations between WADA, other anti-doping organisations, athletes and the public.

Chief scientist of Québec, Dr Rémi Quirion, said: “It is hoped through these three projects that we will raise the understanding of the impacts that AI could have on the fight against doping, both technologically and socially.”

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Alex Ballinger

Alex Ballinger is editor of BikeBiz magazine, the leading publication for the UK cycle industry, and is the former digital news editor for CyclingWeekly.com. After gaining experience in local newsrooms, national newspapers and in digital journalism, Alex found his calling in cycling, first as a reporter, then as news editor responsible for Cycling Weekly's online news output, and now as the editor of BikeBiz. Since pro cycling first captured his heart during the 2010 Tour de France (specifically the Contador-Schleck battle) Alex covered three Tours de France, multiple editions of the Tour of Britain, and the World Championships, while both writing and video presenting for Cycling Weekly. He also specialises in fitness writing, often throwing himself into the deep end to help readers improve their own power numbers.  Away from the desk, Alex can be found racing time trials, riding BMX and mountain bikes, or exploring off-road on his gravel bike. He’s also an avid gamer, and can usually be found buried in an eclectic selection of books.