Sonia O’Sullivan: The peril and panic of missing three drug tests

Christian Coleman missing three tests in 12-month period seems careless

World’s fastest 100m sprinter Christian Coleman may miss the upcoming World Championships in Doha and the Tokyo Olympics next year due to three missed tests. Photograph: Getty Images

World’s fastest 100m sprinter Christian Coleman may miss the upcoming World Championships in Doha and the Tokyo Olympics next year due to three missed tests. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Whenever I hear or read about an athlete missing an anti-doping test I do have to wonder. Is there a legitimate reason for them not being where they are supposed to be? Or is there something else at play?

Back in my competitive days I was typically tested in every country and training camp I visited. It wasn’t quite as consistent or regulated back then, although the Irish anti-doping programme has always been pro-active and tested as much as any other country. We sometimes joked the testers were happy to follow the athletes to faraway locations and make a nice trip out of it. One time Al Guy and his daughter turned up to test me in Melbourne, Al already well known for the out-of-competition test carried out on Michelle de Bruin, in 1998, which was found to have been tampered with and resulted in her four-year ban.

That time in Melbourne I was out for the night at the tennis, so my phone was off, and I didn’t get the message until after midnight they were looking for me, as it was a particularly long game. When I got back my parents, who were visiting, told me Al and his daughter would be back the next morning at 8am for the test. It was out-of-competition but also a specifically requested test by the Irish Sports Council. It’s all part of the process and every clean athlete knows this.

These days the whereabouts rule is more regulated, and all the top athletes know that, which is why you definitely have to wonder about the three missed tests reported for Christian Coleman.

When I hear an athlete has missed one test, I think how easily this can happen

Coleman is currently the fastest 100 metres runner in the world, silver medallist in the 100m and 200m at the last World Championships in London in 2017, only he may miss the upcoming World Championships in Doha and the Tokyo Olympics next year due to three missed tests.

Daily whereabouts

All athletes on the IAAF-registered testing pool must supply detailed information about their daily whereabouts for every single day of the year. This information is submitted quarterly, highlighting a one-hour slot each day where you can be located for testing. Most athletes put down an hour early in the morning before they normally leave the house or late in the evening before they go to bed. You are also required to fill in details of your daily schedule of training venues, work or college commitments.

If a tester calls to your house, training camp location or race hotel and you are not available for testing at your designated hour slot, you will be cited for a missed test. You will be notified of the missed test and given a chance to explain why you were unavailable. Only if it is proven the tester didn’t try hard enough to locate the athlete is it likely the athlete will have the missed test scratched from their record. I often hear athletes worry about this and ensuring they have updated their whereabouts if they have a change of plan. You can update your details anytime before the allocated hour window if you are not going to be where you said you would be. There is a direct phone number where you can text or call to update your location or email with a new location.

So when I hear an athlete has missed one test, I think how easily this can happen. We are all human and forget things but to have three missed tests in a 12-month period seems careless, and you would think you would be methodical in updating your whereabouts if already sitting on two missed tests. It is comparable to driving and collecting points on your licence for a traffic offence; the only difference when driving you also get a fine as an extra reminder to be more careful, to slow down and not repeat a similar offence again. Imagine if you were three points away from having your licence taken away how careful you would be not to be caught going faster than the speed limits or getting caught at a red light?

Maybe an athlete should be fined if they miss a test, rather than just a written warning, something more concrete as a constant reminder to update itineraries. Often my first instinct is to give the athlete the benefit of the doubt. I’m amazed at how so many jump to conclusions, or a conspiracy someone would purposely miss a test or try to avoid a test; it just seems a bit far-fetched and most likely improbable.

You have to think how easy it is to forget things during the day, when you go to the supermarket for a specific item and come home with everything except the item you went to buy. Plans change, and the weather too can sometimes mean you might change training venue or time. You go to another track and you can’t use that either so now you are on plan C and so frustrated as all you want to do is get your training started you forget to update the whereabouts. It’s easily done or not done at all.

It needs to become part of an athlete’s checklist when packing their bag and heading out the door; keys, money, phone, passport, ADAMS

It just doesn’t seem appropriate for speculative comments to be made in the press. It can change the perspective of things and the more you read, the more things don’t seem to add up. How can the US Anti-Doping Agency confirm Coleman has been charged with an anti-doping whereabouts filing violation, contrary to a statement from Coleman denying this is the problem? Possibly he doesn’t want to discuss the issue in public, which is fair enough, but better to say nothing than to say something may be proven to be untrue and then your integrity is questioned over a possible panic response.

Paperwork

It can’t be easy waiting to have your case heard, unable to race, trying to continue with training unsure if you will go to the World Championships and possibly even your Olympic dream unravelled. Not because you have taken any prohibited substances, or failed a drugs test, but because you haven’t filled in the paperwork accurately and updated any changes. Administrative errors aren’t that uncommon when an athlete is so focused on training and racing.

It also means having the Anti Doping Administration System (ADAMS) accessible at all times, set up so it takes minimal effort to update or change. It needs to become part of an athlete’s checklist when packing their bag and heading out the door; keys, money, phone, passport, ADAMS, etc. It’s easy when an athlete is called up for a technical violation to think the worst, but when you know what it’s like as an athlete, once the season gets going days of the week all roll in to one.

It’s easy to have sympathy for a simple human error, only time will tell when the September 4th hearing gives its judgment if it was the same error three times in a row for Coleman. The rule on this is perfectly clear: three chances, three warnings and your time is up, a reminder to all athletes they will be held accountable if proper care is not taken, even if the punishment may appear to outweigh the crime.

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