The new doping: falsify the data registered in virtual sports competitions
On January 11, Antonina Reznikov competed with 35 cyclists around the world in a virtual race for professionals organized in Zwift, a training platform that allows athletes from all over the world to exercise and participate in mass competitions from the very room of their House. Reznikov came fourth. Or that determined the records that you presented in the application. Soon after, she was kicked out of the system for six months. “The performance verification board considers that it is beyond any reasonable doubt that the cyclist intentionally manipulated her data,” says the Zwift report, which expelled another user from the same competition for this reason.
With them, there are four athletes who have seen their accounts blocked after the company’s controls, in place since 2019, revealed their attempts to cheat in professional careers. “This is a problem that exists in all sports and in all aspects of life,” says Chris Snook, communications manager for Zwift. Thus, in the socially distant competition popularized by the pandemic, new forms of doping appear that change the use of substances by manipulating the measurements of digital platforms. The methods for deception are as crude as cycling races that would have to be done on foot and as sophisticated as falsifying the data of the records that are sent to the platforms.
These tactics are not unique to the pandemic, but they have become more prevalent. “In the San Silvestre Vallecana in Madrid, which requires minimum marks for the international test, there have been people who give the chip that controls the time to a friend to make a certain mark and thus be able to qualify”, says Álex Calabuig, CORREDOR director and member of Motorpress Iberica’s sports events team. “We have been organizing virtual races since 2016. At that time they were cleaner because people saw it as a game. Now, in the absence of real competitions, people want to win. We are encountering all kinds of deception attempts. Some we detect them and others we don’t ”.
The cost of these tricks depends on what is at stake. In a charity race where the prize is the simple recognition of participation, the cheater hurts himself and the morale of those who compete properly. “It really is silly. In the end you deceive yourself to earn a diploma ”, explains Calabuig, who last year took part in the organization and monitoring of the virtual version of the Central Dairy Asturian Women’s Race, where more than 41,000 people registered. “This test has always been more fun and there is not so much attempt to cheat. But we have detected that false times were sent in all cities, ”he says.
Screening of children
At Zwift, the impact is more decisive: the platform has exceeded 3.2 million registered users since its launch in 2014; organize leagues of sports —esports – since 2019, and last year it hosted a virtual Tour de France as part of a fundraising campaign for charitable causes. “Often there are prizes with money and as the sport matures and gets more serious, more teams come in with sponsorships,” says Snook. In this context, virtual appointments become as decisive as physical ones for the advancement of the sports careers of their participants, and the task of sifting through rogues becomes a priority.
The performance verification board that expelled Reznikov – who eventually admitted the facts, by the way – is the last resort to stop the cheaters. Before and during the professional competitions, a surveillance network is deployed that includes random controls focused on the first three of each race, as well as the possibility of investigating suspicious cases. In this category, cyclists must present a history of power measurements from two different devices. These records, along with the pulse, cadence, speed, height and weight, are integrated into a database that determines what each athlete is capable of and, in the event of discrepancies, can leave them out of the race before having put your feet on the pedals.
In addition, the platform requires applicants to send a video in which they confirm the veracity of height and weight, which are entered manually: they must be recorded while they are measured and, once on the scale, show how the weight varies by adding 10 kilos of ballast to show that it is properly calibrated. The turn of the verification meeting comes if, at the end of the competition, an anomaly is detected: when the problem is in technical failures in the devices used —a heart rate monitor that does not work—, the participant is disqualified; if it is proven that there has been bad faith, they are deported for six months. The next offense would result in a year in exile and a third attempt to cheat would result in a lifetime ban on the platform.
The price of the truth
In these areas, the cost of the devices that each athlete needs to record their performance and prove their innocence becomes a barrier to entry. “There’s no way to avoid it. If you’re competing at the top, you need to have systems that allow us to verify your performance, ”admits Snook. In the best of cases, the purchase of rollers, heart rate monitors and power, speed and cadence meters, or smart bicycles that integrate all of the above would be assumed by the sponsors of different teams. At worst, the minimum cost would be around 500 euros (not including the bike) and would exceed 2,000 if you opt for a smart bike. “Once you have the equipment, the cost of competing is minimal compared to traditional sports, because you are at home,” says the Zwift spokesperson. From this point on, the need to invest in travel disappears and the only expense on the horizon is the 14 euros per month of the subscription to the platform.
Cheaper still is competing for the love of art. Outside of the big leagues, a GPS phone is enough for both participating and cheating. “If you run more than me, I can give you my mobile and let you run”, says Abraham Serra CEO of Sportmaniacs, which offers technologies for the organization and monitoring of face-to-face and virtual races, and allows participants in the latter format to upload their results through an application that connects to the Strava training platform.
In athletics, the difficulty is added that the competition takes place outdoors, with fewer measuring devices and more space for mischief: each participant goes out for a run in the established period and records their performance on their phone or smart watch. Serra explains that GPS tracking allows us to control that distances are met and that there is no alternative form of transport, but if the route to follow is free, there are details that escape: “People can look for favorable routes, being something perfectly legal: unevenness, curves, changes of direction … That is why we have developed races with a predefined route so that everyone can run in similar circumstances ”.
Snook acknowledges that in amateur competitions, the Zwift controls are more lax: “It’s hard to do this on a massive scale. We are talking about thousands of cyclists and races ”. If it is detected that a competitor is registering parameters higher than “humanly possible” according to their history, their avatar will be slowed down and they will be marked with a kind of cone of shame visible to the rest of the competitors. Also, repeat cheats face the risk of becoming invisible, so they can use the app without spoiling the fun of others.
In the Women’s Race, unmasking the cheaters required investigating the suspicious records one by one. “We wrote to these people and asked for their records from previous races to see if the progression was normal or not. And we met people who had suddenly covered five kilometers in 15 minutes, when their normal time is 30 ”, recalls Calabuig. In the first virtual treadmill race, in addition to requesting previous marks, all participants were asked to record their participation. “There has been more cleaning, within which there have also been traps, and I will tell you that no one has protested being disqualified,” he stresses.
For the future, Zwift is considering the possibility of establishing controls based on machine learning that also keep an eye on the large masses of fans who compete on the platform and Serra confirms that Sportmaniacs do not rule out doing the same. Calabuig is not so concerned. “None of our tests is more important than trying to motivate people and have them enjoy themselves.” As long as the pandemic continues, this format will remain the only alternative to filling the streets. The organization of london marathon, which in 2020 conquered the Guinness record for runners participating in a remote marathon in 24 hours -37,966-, has already confirmed that in its 2021 edition, scheduled for October 3, it aims to hold a hybrid race, with 50,000 runners face-to-face and another 50,000 spread around the world. “The core will continue to be the physical race, but virtual careers will last because organizations have detected that it is an added business route,” says Calabuig.