A data visualization of doping at the Olympics over time

A data visualization of doping at the Olympics over time

As Rio 2016 comes to a close, it’s undeniably been a Games to remember: Wild celebrations (Brazil’s men claiming football gold thanks to Neymar’s heroics), meteoric performances (Usain Bolt’s ‘triple triple’ on the track) and controversy aplenty (think poor facilities and muggings – both real and made-up (what was ‘Lying Lochte’ thinking!?)).

But perhaps the most pervasive force at the Games of the XXXI Olympiad was the omnipresent spectre of doping. Revelations of Russian state-sanctioned doping marred the 2016 Summer Games from the outset, while experts have labelled the anti-doping processes at Rio the “worst” in Games history. And, given the Kremlin-orchestrated sample swapping plot uncovered in the aftermath of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, most reports indicate that Rio officials didn’t do enough to implement a rigorous screening program and thereby allay mounting doping concerns.

A 20-year medal history by country, sport and medal type
Has the heated competition at Rio 2016 got you salivating at the prospect of exploring the key facts, figures and stats served-up during Olympic competition? Check out Olympics.yellowfin.bi to analyze the modern history of the Olympics, filtering results by country, sport and medal type. Delve in at: Olympics.yellowfin.bi >
So has the number of doping violations increased over time at Olympic competition? Let’s turn to Business Intelligence software and data visualization to get some answers.

Sources: sportsanddrugs.procon.org, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), www.economist.com

Doping cases at the Summer Olympics (1968 – 2012)

Note: Measures the number of drug test carried out, and doping violations detected, during competition. Since those Olympic competitions, more athletes have been disqualified retrospectively, as drug testing mechanisms improve and samples collected at previous Olympic meets are re-tested.

Aside from the highly controversial and politicized 1980 Moscow Games, which the USA boycotted, at least one doping violation has been recorded at every Summer Games since official IOC drug testing began at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. And, anti-doping efforts have steadily increased – particularly in recent times.

While some 1,507 drug tests were undertaken during Olympic competition at Los Angeles 1984, London 2012 saw an astonishing 5,051 tests administered. Interestingly, since the significant increase in drug testing – where the number of tests jumped above 2000 for the first time in Sydney (2,359), spiking to 3,667 in Athens, 4,700 in Beijing and 5,051 in London – the number of detected violations has also built-up – a troubling correlation for the IOC.

But what’s that you say? The London 2012 Olympics had the highest number of drug tests on record, but the fewest number of doping violations identified (nine) since the Atlanta 1996 Games (two). True. However, the data underpinning this visualization only counts the number of drug tests carried out, and doping violations detected, during Olympic competition. Since those Olympic competitions, more athletes have been disqualified retrospectively, as drug testing mechanisms improve and samples collected at previous Olympic meets are re-tested.

Disqualifications for doping at the Summer Games (1968 – 2012)


The number of athletes disqualified for testing positive for banned substances, when in-competition testing is combined with retrospective sample testing, paints a bleak picture.

Far from what the number of in-competition doping violations identified at London 2012 (nine) initially indicated about the cleanness of competition, a record 36 athletes have now been disqualified for doping. Similarly, Sydney 2000 saw just 11 doping violations reported at the time, with 23 athletes since disqualified for doping-related offences. Athens 2004 recorded a record number of doping violations (26), which has since seen 34 competitors disqualified. And while Beijing 2008 actually detected more doping violations (25) compared to the number of athletes ultimately disqualified (21), it still slots seamlessly into one consistent narrative: Since Atlanta 1996, the IOC seems to be fighting a losing battle against drug cheats, as doping means and mechanisms become increasingly sophisticated. Further, contrary to stereotypical images of drug cheats, such as hulked-up male weightlifters, women account for a substantial proportion of overall disqualifications, with more females (23) disqualified from competition at London 2012 than their male counterparts (13).

But, do these figures really indicate that drug cheats are becoming more prevalent? Or, do the numbers simply mean that, on the whole, modern testing processes are placing athletes under more scrutiny and thereby exposing more doping violations? It’s difficult to give a definitive answer.

Either way, it’s hard to make the results tell a positive story for the IOC, despite their obvious efforts to facilitate clean competition. What’s more, it seems as though drug cheats have also experienced more success, in terms of performance, since Atlanta 1996 too.

Doping disqualifications at the Summer Games by medal type (1968 – 2012)


The fallout from Sydney 2000 saw 14 medal winners disqualified for doping offences – eight of which were originally hailed as gold medalists. Another 14 medalists, eight of which also ‘won’ gold, were disqualified from the Athens 2004 Olympics, with eight and four medalists also eliminated following positive drug tests from Beijing in 2008 and London 2012.

Putting aside the current momentum that hi-tech doping appears to be building in Olympic competition, if not elite world sport more generally, let’s spare a thought for poor old Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall. Liljenwall was the first competitor to be disqualified under IOC drug testing, with the Swedish pentathlete banned for alcohol use after having “two beers” to calm himself prior to partaking in the pistol shooting event at Mexico City 1968.

But, as comically unfortunate as Liljenwall’s tale of woe may be, it seems unlikely that most doping transgressions would be committed by nervous pistol shooting Swedes. So are there any specific nations or sports that stand out when it comes to the number of doping violations committed?

Note: As the specific details of disqualified athletes are not always released, the below charts depict the number of detected in-competition doping violations by sport and country, rather than the number of disqualifications.

Olympic doping violations by sport (combined Winter and Summer Games, 1968 – 2010)


Ok, so we might have been able to guess that weightlifting would top this particular tally (36 cases reported). And, as athletics encompasses so many individual sports, it’s perhaps no surprise either that the number of athletics-related doping violations reported is also high (28). However, the bronze medal position – Cross Country Skiing (12) – seems surprising. And, yes, before the jokes begin, Equestrian doping offences include the use of banned substances for either horse or rider.

Olympic doping violations by country (combined Winter and Summer Games, 1968 – 2010)


While the widespread drug abuses committed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games and 2016 Rio Summer Games are not included in this data set, Russian athletes have still perpetrated the greatest number of doping violations, according to official IOC figures for all Olympic competition between 1968 and 2010 (ten).

Further, none of the rampant drug use at the Moscow 1980 Games, which did not officially record any doping violations during competition, is reflected in this data set. The ludicrously widespread use of performance enhancing drugs at Moscow was summed-up in an Australian government senate report in 1989, which stated: “there is hardly a medal winner at the Moscow Games, certainly not a gold medal winner, who is not on one sort of drug or another: usually several kinds. The Moscow Games might as well have been called the Chemists’ Games.”

Where to next?

With Rio’s Closing Ceremony only hours away, we bid adieu to the Summer Games for another four years until Tokyo 2020.

If you haven’t had the chance, we urge you to check out our interactive DashXML dashboards, providing a history of results at the Summer Games by country, sport and medal type (1996 – 2012): Olympics.yellowfin.bi >

And, if you’ve missed our other Olympics-related data analysis, you can view them now: Data visualization at Rio 2016: Mapping team size by country and Data visualization: How your country’s GDP impacts its Olympic success.

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