The virtual race is on to stop 'digital doping'

NEW YORK • The cat-and-mouse battle between athletes who cheat and those who try to find them has gone digital.

With a proliferation of online endurance events during the pandemic, catching cheats is the challenge faced by companies like Zwift, which produces an app that allows amateur and professional cyclists and runners to compete against one another from home.

Now the company is trying to crack down on so-called digital doping, or the practice of manipulating race data to improve digital performances or cover up human or technical errors.

"There's so much cheating in Zwift that I think a lot of people would like to see more accountability," said Ray Maker, who writes the endurance sports technology blog DC Rainmaker.

Yet professional athletes publicly accused of gaming Zwift's system have said they did not intentionally cheat and that they had been made scapegoats as the company tries to show it is taking the matter seriously.

The pressure has been on to get the process right, especially leading to a new event, the Cycling E-sports World Championships, which the International Cycling Union, the global cycling governing body, hosted last Wednesday.

South African Ashleigh Moolman and Germany's Jason Osborne became cycling's first virtual world champions when they - or rather their avatars - won the 50km women's and men's race on the digital roads of "Watopia".

In addition to traditional anti-doping controls to bar the use of performance-enhancing drugs, data analysis was employed to prevent digital doping. "We feel confident in the ability to catch cheaters and to police the races," said Zwift spokesman Chris Snook.

A group called Zwift Accuracy and Data Analysis, made up of sports scientists and technical experts, analyses race data.

It looks at the riders' race files registered on Zwift and on a second device, and inspects metrics from power meters and heart rate monitors to compare the athletes' digital race performance to their past data.

Participants also had to submit their height and weight through a recorded video process, providing additional data that influences the rider's power per weight numbers and final rankings.

After the race, athletes had to manually upload the second race file that they record on a second device connected to a power meter (usually a pedal or another device in their crank arms or chain rings).

This second file is used to double-check the validity of the first file registered on Zwift.

There have been several accusations of digital doping since last year, when British Cycling stripped Cam Jeffers of his Cycling e-Racing Championship title; barring him from all races for six months.

Last month, two riders - Lizi Duncombe of Britain and Israel's Shanni Berger of Israel - were banned for six months from Zwift races for "fabrication or modification of any data" and "bringing the sport into disrepute".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2020, with the headline 'The virtual race is on to stop 'digital doping''. Subscribe