Comment: Testing times

After the high profile sanctions for missed drug tests by Commonwealth 400m champion Christine Ohurugu and Tim Don, the triathlon world champion, Michele Verroken asks whether the present system in Britain has set up competitors to fail

Negative drug test results are an essential component of any effective testing programme, to demonstrate that athletes compete drug-free. The World Anti-Doping Agency Code has improved the chances of testing athletes as they are now obliged to provide detailed information to assist the doping control officer find them and they are punished for not keeping their whereabouts information up to date.

Missing a test on three occasions within a period of 18 months is universally accepted as a doping violation. This is a necessary requirement to stop competitors avoiding the testers when they are taking drugs and only making themselves available when the drugs had cleared their system, as happened so often in the past.

However the Code provides guidelines only on the definition of whereabouts information and missed tests, leaving scope for individual variations in the way whereabouts systems are managed and how missed tests are determined.

Most international sports federations and national anti-doping systems have adopted a daily schedule approach, requiring the competitor to specify their training and work/study regimes, with alternative addresses at which they may be located. For example, when weather dictates an indoor rather than an outdoor session, or an alternative venue if the track is double booked.

On these occasions, doping control officers, or DCOs, search the primary and alternative venues for the competitor during the times indicated, locate them and collect the samples.

Now athletes really should be tested anywhere, at any time. Where the UK’s present system differs is that it is more specific. Athletes are required to maintain details of their whereabouts for one hour a day, for at least five days of the week. DCOs are authorised (and paid) to visit one location for one hour. Miss three test attempts in 18 months and this is considered a missed test offence.

While I am firmly in favour of rigorous testing and drug free sport, the consequent increase in tests being missed by UK athletes raises questions about the effectiveness of the system to protect them. Such a specific timeframe for locating the athlete does not take account of the challenges of being a human being, let alone an athlete.

The current system also has the effect that competitors who are doping now have useful windows of opportunity to use low doses of prohibited substances and be confident the substances would clear the body just in time for their next test “appointment”. For example, an athlete may specify his whereabouts schedule availability between 0600-0700hrs Monday, nothing on Tuesday, then 2300-2359hrs Wednesday, leaving 64 hours during which time he knows he will not be tested.

Further, athletes who know how to manipulate tests have the ideal situation under this system. They know now when the tester might call and they can prepare fake urine, masking agents and prosthetic genitalia.

Tim Don is reportedly confident that overturning the British Olympic Association’s lifetime ban on athletes who commit doping offences. But how does this affect the credibility of the BOA’s stance on doping? What if an athlete has two missed tests before the Games begin? Do we take a chance?

As funding tightens in the chase for medals, does your progress along the slippery slope of missed tests become a deciding factor in selection? Is it right that athletes are being tested by the same organisation that decides the funding for their governing body?

When comparison is made with athletes’ whereabouts systems in other countries, it is clear our athletes are not competing on a level playing field. The solution is an alternative system to improve access to athletes.

Are we to accept that all athletes with missed tests had good reason? At what point will an athlete use this as the ultimate excuse and avoid a positive test? Better to miss a test than fail a test, being forgetful sounds better than being a cheat.

Michele Verroken is the former head of anti-doping at UK Sport and the founding director of the sports business consultancy Sporting Integrity

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policy of the Sports Journalists’ Association.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Inside the Games, a weekly e-mail newsletter and website covering the 2012 London Games. Inside the Games offers a special 20 per cent discount on subscriptions exclusively to SJA members. For details of this offer, click here.

Previous coverage of the doping in sport issue on can be found here:

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