Features 28th October 2020

Christian Coleman case: are we catching dopes or dopers?

About three years ago, former athlete Jonas Plass had a good idea. Athletes already track their location through applications such as Strava and Garmin, so why not utilise GPS technology to simplify ‘whereabouts’ requirements for athletes? The PARADISE Project planned to indicate an athlete’s rough location to a Doping Control Officer (DCO), who would only receive their exact location once they were within 4km of the athlete.

No more forms. Far less centrally held data potentially accessible to illegal hacking operations such as Fancy Bears. No more questions regarding broken doorbells, mistaken identities, incorrect addresses and countless more excuses for missing tests. DCOs would be able to locate athletes for testing anywhere, at any time. This is perhaps why Plass named his project PARADISE.

In March 2018, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) Ethics Panel rejected the use of GPS to locate athletes for testing, however its Position Paper appears to have only focussed on the ‘ethical concerns’ presented by such a system, rather than any potential privacy benefits from utilising GPS technology. WADA has since launched ‘Athlete Central’, its new whereabouts application, but this still requires a large amount of data to be held centrally on the Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS).

Athletes must still upload their Whereabouts Filings to ADAMS, adapted medical software which WADA is understood to have bought in 2005. WADA has spent a significant amount of money on maintaining and upgrading this system. Its 2016 Annual Report states that ADAMS ‘represents a significant portion of WADA’s overall budget’ but does not go into further detail, other than listing ADAMS as an ‘intangible asset’ worth US$4.2 million.

Christian Coleman

The reason that all of the above is relevant is because world 100m champion Christian Coleman has been sanctioned with a two year ban for three ‘whereabouts’ failures in 12 months. Coleman was charged by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) of World Athletics in June this year. All that has changed since the US Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) failed attempt to charge him in September last year is that he has missed one test. A 16 January 2019 Missed Test and a 26 April Filing Failure (backdated to 1 April) had already been established via the previous case brought against him by USADA.

‘For the avoidance of doubt, there is no suggestion that the Athlete has ever taken any Prohibited Substance and we wish to make that clear at the outset’, reads the Sport Resolutions Panel Decision (PDF below) in his case. However later on in the Decision Raphaël Roux, the Out-of-Competition Testing Manager for the AIU, makes it clear that Coleman was targeted because:

• he had ‘missed four tests’, and missed tests are ‘always a warning sign’;
• a combination of very good performances and missed tests;
• an impression that Coleman might have been forewarned about previous tests.

So there is no suggestion that Coleman has ever doped, but he was targeted based on suspicion that he might have doped. This is the problem with the ‘whereabouts’ system. It allows an athlete to be charged with an Anti-Doping Rule Violation (ADRV) without any evidence whatsoever that they have doped. 

The use of GPS technology kills many of the assumptions that are built into whereabouts cases stone dead. The DCO can turn up, tap the athlete on the shoulder, and test them. No more feeble excuses. No more catching dopes who haven’t fulfilled their whereabouts requirements. Anti-Doping Organisations (ADOs) can focus on testing and catching dopers.

Coleman will appeal

Coleman has been sanctioned with a two year ban expiring 13 May 2022, which will mean he is ineligible to defend his 100m title at the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics. He will appeal, his lawyer Howard Jacobs confirmed. The Sports Resolutions Panel rejected his defence for a Missed Test on 9 December last year. The Panel dismissed his claim that he had returned home from Christmas shopping to eat a chipotle during his one hour window and then returned to the shops as ‘impossible’. 

As World Champion, Coleman is a member of a Registered Testing Pool (RTP). As such, he must supply ‘whereabouts’ information indicating where he will be available for testing for one hour in every 24. This is in addition to information on his overnight accommodation, competition schedule, as well as ‘regular activities’ – for example, training sessions. A DCO can turn up to test an athlete at any of these locations at any time.

Athletes that feature in an RTP must file this information through ADAMS, in advance, for the next three months (although locations can later be amended). Coleman is an international athlete and as the circumstances of his whereabouts failures reveal, his location often changes. 

Following USADA’s 2019 attempt to charge Coleman, he argued that he is tested between 30 and 40 times per year – or once every two weeks. For Coleman, it could be argued that keeping his ‘whereabouts’ information up to date, and ensuring that he is where he said he would be at all times, is very onerous.

Under Article 2.4 of the World Anti-Doping Code, any combination of three Missed Tests or Filing Failures by an athlete in an RTP within a 12 month period is considered an ADRV, subject to a two year ban. A Missed Test is recorded when an athlete is unavailable during their specified 60 minute window. A Filing Failure is recorded where an athlete’s failure to update their whereabouts results in DCOs turning up at the athlete’s address or training session – for example – only to discover that the athlete is at another location.

16 January 2019 Missed Test

During USADA’s failed attempt to charge him last year, Coleman explained that by January 2019, he had moved to Lexington, Kentucky, and had updated his Whereabouts Filing. However, his usual weights session had been moved from 9am to 8am. He argues that his Whereabouts Filing specified that he would be at home from 8am to 9am, and he had forgotten to update it to reflect the moved gym session.

Coleman explains that he lives ten minutes away from the gym, and was wearing an Apple watch that would alert him to incoming calls. He said that he later discovered in an email that the DCO argued they had attempted to call him, but had not received a reply. He argues that there must have been some kind of “miscommunication”, but accepts responsibility for not being where he should have been for that test.

26 April 2019 Filing Failure

Coleman’s whereabouts information indicated he would be training in Lexington, Kentucky between 2:00pm and 5:30pm. His specified 60 minute slot was 7:30pm to 8:30pm at his address in Lexington. A DCO turned up outside of these times – as is permitted – at 12:09pm at his address and called him. Coleman explained that he had been invited to train at the Drake Relays in Iowa, which took place from 24-27 April, and asked if he could be tested there.

The DCO concluded that Coleman couldn’t possibly have been in Lexington on 26 April and recorded a Filing Failure against him. The Sport Resolutions Panel decision reveals that Coleman attempted to update his whereabouts filings retrospectively, ‘approximately three to four minutes after the DCO called him’. In USADA’s case against him, Coleman attempted to claim he had amended his whereabouts prior to the indicated training time for 26 April, the Sport Resolutions Panel found.

‘The Athlete knew he was going to Iowa on 22 or 23 April and received his itinerary on 23 April’, reads the Decision. ‘He flew there on 24 April […] The Athlete only updated his whereabouts after he received the call from the DCO and that was two days after he had arrived in Iowa, and about three days after he was informed that the circumstances will change. This is a clear breach of Art. I.3.5. ISTI [International Standard for Testing and Investigations]. Further, the Athlete’s updated Whereabouts information for 26 April specified a time which had already passed, so that in the end no valid 60-minute slot remained for that day at all. Therefore, we are satisfied the Athlete committed a Filing Failure on 26 April 2019.’

9 December 2019 Missed Test

The reason why the Sport Resolutions panel didn’t accept Coleman’s explanation…

When he was charged in June, Coleman explained that he was out Christmas shopping ‘five minutes away’ on 9 December. The Sport Resolutions Panel was highly critical of Coleman’s defence that he had returned home during his one hour specified window (see right).  

Coleman accused the AIU of attempting to trap him into missing a test by instructing DCOs not to call him (see below). As previously explained, there is no requirement for a DCO to call an athlete during a testing mission. The Sport Resolutions Panel Decision hammers this point home. 

The AIU’s reasons why it told a DCO not to call Coleman…

The AIU’s Roux told the Panel that he had given the ‘no call’ instruction to the DCO for a number of reasons (see right). The Panel didn’t need to assess the validity of these reasons because – as mentioned – there is no requirement for a DCO to call an athlete if they are not present at a specified location during a testing mission.

Entrapment?

It would appear that Coleman has attempted to explain away serious failings in updating his whereabouts information – explanations that the Sports Resolutions panel didn’t buy as credible. Last week, a Sports Resolutions Panel cleared Salwa Eid Naser of two ADRVs asserted by World Athletics based on ‘whereabouts’ failures. 

Neither decision involves doping and both involve an apparent failure to fully understand the ‘whereabouts’ system. Yet because of the nebulous nature of the ‘whereabouts’ regime, suspicions of doping persist. 

The Panel emphasised Coleman’s criticism of the decision to charge him for ‘whereabouts’ violations…

After USADA failed to charge Coleman with a whereabouts ADRV last year, he spoke out against the whereabouts process and because of this, it would appear that the Sport Resolutions Panel was not prepared to consider any reduction in his sanction. Is he being punished for criticising the system?

The comments of Raphaël Roux show that sport is keen to put across the idea that athletes are targeted under the whereabouts regime because of suspicions that they might be doping. Unfortunately, Sport Resolutions was not required to assess whether Roux’s comments hold any weight.

During USADA’s case against Coleman last year, it emerged that the DCO had turned up during the last five minutes of the 7-8am window specified for 6 June 2018. USADA faced much criticism over this, however it is understood that such an approach is not uncommon. Many anti-doping organisations don’t send DCOs to test athletes at precisely the time indicated on their whereabouts filings. If a DCO doesn’t turn up during the first 45 minutes of a 60 minute window, there may be a temptation for the athlete to leave. 

The clear aim is to catch the athlete out. Similarly, it is hard to see how the AIU’s instruction for the DCO not to call Coleman had any aim other than to catch him out. 

Victor Conte’s 2003 letter claimed athletes can manipulate whereabouts requirements to avoid being tested…

Filing incorrect information and avoiding doping tests can be a sign that an athlete is doping, as illustrated by Victor Conte’s 2003 letter (see right) detailing Dwain Chambers’ doping regime, which led to a tightening of ‘whereabouts’ rules. However, such athletes would arguably seek to avoid the entire testing mission. 

Coleman argues that he would have presented himself for testing on 9 December 2019 had the DCO called him. The actions of USADA and AIU appear to indicate attempts to secure a whereabouts ‘strikes’ against Coleman rather than attempts to secure an adverse analytical finding (AAF) – or ‘positive test’.

Coleman no doubt knows that he is a target for ADOs. Due to last year’s case, he would also be only too aware that he is on his last chance in terms of ‘whereabouts’ failures. He also argues that he was tested on 11 December 2019, two days later, as well as multiple times during quarantine, without issue. 

There are legitimate questions that need answering – not least whether 9 December is a tad early for Christmas shopping. People will point to Conte’s letter as evidence that Coleman is following a plan to hide his doping, arguing that he deliberately avoided the 9 December 2019 test so that when DCOs returned two days later, substances had cleared his system.

Without explicitly stating it, the Sport Resolutions Panel Decision appears to conclude that Coleman has been less than 100% truthful about the reasons for his whereabouts failures. Coleman’s appeal will no doubt argue against this.

Use of GPS could resolve many of these issues instantly. Athletes generally aren’t troubled by the ‘ethical concerns’ that WADA held regarding the use of GPS to track their location. Coleman has already said that he would support the use of such technology, and other athletes apparently support him.

Eid Naser’s case revealed that she had struggled to file her ‘whereabouts’. No doubt she would also support location tracking technology to enable testers to find her, as she was available for testing on two of the four contested dates. 

The problem with ‘whereabouts’ cases is that despite recording an ADRV against an athlete, they do not present conclusive proof of doping. The ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy leads ADOs into attempts to trap athletes into recording whereabouts failures. This creates resentment amongst some athletes, who feel unfairly targeted.

There is no doubt that Coleman has been remiss. The AIU appears to indicate that there is more to his case than a simple failure to understand the whereabouts rules. Only Coleman will know the truth. However, the cases of Coleman and Eid Naser appear to indicate that at present, ‘whereabouts’ rules are catching dopes, and not dopers. 

Use of GPS to target and test athletes on the spot could change this perception. Athletes already use GPS and welcome its use in anti-doping. Why not utilise it?

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