So you tell anti-doping where you’ll be for one hour a day and they come to find you for testing. Simple right?
With the recent focus on the anti-doping whereabouts systems for athletes such as Christian Coleman and Salwa Eid Naser, speaking to an athlete with experience of the system seemed wise.
Dan Lawson isn’t your standard professional athlete, but after winning the European 24hr Championships in 2016 the Sussex native was popped onto a list with some of the more famous names. It was a shock to us at management level that our athlete would be included, but Dan took it into his stride. The very unique stride that it is.
Before getting into Dan’s own experience about how he managed to be at the right location for his hour 365 times in a year and also being tested seven times, let’s look at the system itself.
The way it works
Top tier athletes, from national level athletes to the likes of Olympic gold medallists and world champions, have to file their whereabouts with their national anti-doping body. For one hour a day they must give a location at which they are available for testing. Their location is listed for the whole day, but the single hour is when they must be available for testing or fail their whereabouts.
Miss three tests in a twelve month period and you’re up for a ban. It’s pretty generous. As a clean athlete, you’d be horrified, but life happens and it can simply be a mistake.
Miss two tests (in just a 12 month period) and, as a clean athlete, you’d be absolutely gutted that it got so close. You’d make sure that there was zero chance of missing another.
Which is why when someone misses three tests we shouldn’t just put them down as disorganised, as someone who isn’t good at keeping a diary, but as someone who has an anti-doping rule violation. Just like we treat the other anti-doping rule violators. Two missed tests is generous, three is a triple get out of jail free card for a doper.
But they were tested 1000 times that year…
Why care about out of competition tests when some of these athletes are tested multiple times in competition each year?
They say that the in-competition test is more of an IQ test. With athletes and doctors knowing when they will likely be “glowing” (vulnerable to a positive test from a substance’s presence in their body), it’s relatively simple to not test positive on race day.
One imagines that even out of competition testing is a case of taking a small enough dose each evening, outside of the testing window, that it’s out of your system in the morning, so called “micro-dosing”.
So for anti-doping authorities to know where an athlete is, for one hour of every day, and be able to test them, isn’t really a huge ask for transparency.
Bring in Mr. Lawson.
Dan Lawson, whilst an absolutely lovely human being, isn’t someone you’d imagine keeps a strict diary. As his coach I can say that the filling in of a training diary is a rare and unusual occurrence. He likes to sleep on the beach, spend months in a time in India and go on hours and hours of long runs on the trails.
“It wasn’t easy. It was actually really hard to keep everything up to date, especially when in places without good quality internet,” recalls Lawson.
In the course of 12 months on the whereabouts scheme the British international made sure he was in the right place, at the right time, for every one of his hour slots.
“At one point I was working at Glastonbury,” laughs the 24hr runner. “And the officers insisted they could go to the front gate and would be let in because they were drug testers. I was working 18 hour days so to make sure I was available I found a pub four miles from the festival and each lunch break I ran there, waited outside for an hour, then ran back.”
“They never came, but I always made sure I was there for the full hour. I actually lost some work because we couldn’t find a one hour slot for the whereabouts.”
Okay, so it was only one year for the then 45 year old amateur athlete, but there were still six out of competition tests within that year. One of those tests was in a rural area of India, but still Lawson was at the rather imaginatively named address when the anti-doping agent arrived. He always was.
“There was one time when someone offered me a last minute ticket to an England U17s game and I would loved to have gone, but the internet bandwidth in India wasn’t good enough to change at the last minute, so I missed out. I wasn’t taking any chances. Part of this was how a missed test would look on my whole 24hr team. I didn’t want to let my teammates down at all.”
If it was your professional job, as part of a career of being a full time athlete, then surely filling in your whereabouts is a sometimes arduous, but important part of that.
World class race walker Evan Dunfee puts it like this “Filling out whereabouts is definitely a chore, but it’s a tiny task in the grand scheme of what we sign up for as athletes.”
“I get that mistakes happen, they’ve happened to me,” says the Canadian, “and that those mistakes are more likely to burn you the more often you’re tested but unless everyone plays by the same rules the game just simply isn’t fair.”
So much so that you’d unlikely fuck it up not once, not twice, but three times in a calendar year. You’d make sure the system that alerted you to someone’s presence at the door was working or that you didn’t wander down the shops for your one hour a day.
Why we must see it like a failed test
Now think of this from a doper’s point of view. In the days of micro-dosing and new unknown substances, with the right medical team a cheating athlete might feel uncatchable. Add in the safety net of not one, but two missed tests. You never fail the test you don’t take.
Imagine if you’re doping and have all three strikes available for the 12 months ahead. You dope and instead of making sure you’re in the right place, make sure you’re not. “Oops, sorry I missed a test”.
If you’re a clean athlete, you accept the fact that three missed tests means you’re dirty. If you’re a dirty athlete you see the missed tests as a way out.
Even look at the difference in how athletes who miss tests are treated compared to those who fail for a recreational substance like cocaine or marijuana. If your choices are “get busted for EPO” or “get busted for poor diary keeping” you know which one looks better on the CV.
Should we be harsher on those who miss tests?
We cannot simply say that those who miss three tests are doping. There are many factors at play and the real dopers will play into the fact that there is doubt in the system. They will appeal to the better nature of those who don’t feel the need to cheat.
One simple way is to treat those who commit anti-doping rule violations at the same level. It might seem harsh to compare someone caught taking all the drugs in the world to an athlete who wasn’t in the right place at the same time, but three missed tests in a 12 month period is quite generous.
There are flaws, and cases where the doping control officer has knocked at the wrong house or not stayed for the full hour, banging on the athlete’s door to make sure they make it home in time, but that is balanced out by stories of doping control officers calling ahead and the fact that most don’t want an athlete to miss their test. It’s their job to test them, not play hide and seek.
So next time someone describes the system as “unfair” and “overwhelming” when they miss three tests remember this: there’s 1000s of clean athletes who don’t find the whereabouts system too much to handle.
If Dan Lawson can be in the right place, at the right time every day, then trust me, no one should be missing three tests in a year unless they want to.