Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Many outraged voices were heard within athletics last month when the World Athletics Disciplinary Tribunal dismissed anti-doping charges brought against Bahrain’s world 400 metres champion Salwa Eid Naser for alleged whereabouts failures.

There were accusations that the decision to clear the Nigerian-born athlete, whose winning time of 48.14sec was the fastest since East German Marita Koch set the world record of 47.60 in 1985, had been an embarrassment, or worse.

Within a week, another, an even higher-profile athlete – the men’s 100 metres world champion Christian Coleman – was given a two-year ban, also for whereabouts failure charges brought by the Athletics Integrity Unit.

For those of a mind to see the former case as one where the decision had been influenced by the standing of the athlete involved, the latter offered a reproof. But then some voices were raised, notably Coleman’s, lamenting the fact that he was being sanctioned and denied an opportunity to seek Olympic gold next summer despite never having tested positive for a banned substance.

In the wake of the Naser case, World Athletics stressed that it had "no input into case management and decisions".

"In 2017, World Athletics (then the IAAF) set up an independent system to manage anti-doping matters in order to separate it completely from the administration of the sport", it said in a statement.

The decision by the World Athletics Disciplinary Tribunal not to uphold the Athletics Integrity Unit's proposed ban on Bahrain's world 400m champion Salwa Eid Naser has proved controversial ©Getty Images
The decision by the World Athletics Disciplinary Tribunal not to uphold the Athletics Integrity Unit's proposed ban on Bahrain's world 400m champion Salwa Eid Naser has proved controversial ©Getty Images

"The Athletics Integrity Unit was established to oversee testing, investigation and cases.

"The Disciplinary Tribunal, which comprises independent legal professionals, decides on cases and is also a separate body.

"World Athletics has no input into case management and decisions.

"We understand that the time this process takes can be frustrating, but the system must be independent, robust and thorough in order to maintain integrity."

As for the AIU – the differing results met by two of their highest of high-profile cases surely defends them against suggestions of collusion. If Naser had always been bound for clearance, the AIU had spent an extraordinary amount of time and care in preparing their "fake case."

In each case there is a 30-day window in which to appeal the decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). Coleman has said he will appeal, although that has not yet been lodged. The AIU is also actively considering if it has grounds to appeal, and in the meantime the World Anti-Doping Agency President, Witold Bańka, has said he is "concerned" about the decision, adding: "WADA will analyse it carefully and exercise its right to appeal if necessary."

The whereabouts system requires elite athletes who have been placed in a Registered Testing Pool by the AIU – it currently consists of 545 track and field athletes, and around 300 road racers – to provide a daily overnight address, a competition and training schedule and a 60-minute window in every day where they can offer a testing sample to a visiting Doping Control Officer (DCO).

The Coleman and Naser cases are the two most high-profile examples of a glut of whereabouts investigations that have come to light in 2020. They are the highest profile athletes to have been recently charged with failing to be available for drug testing at a location of their choice on three occasions within a 12 month period, thus triggering a possible sanction of up to two years suspension.

World 100 metres champion Christian Coleman says he plans to appeal against the two-year ban imposed upon him for whereabouts failures ©Getty Images
World 100 metres champion Christian Coleman says he plans to appeal against the two-year ban imposed upon him for whereabouts failures ©Getty Images

Bans have been confirmed on Kenya’s former world marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang, his compatriot Alex Korio, Albert Rop of Bahrain, and the United States sprinter Deajah Stevens.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Commonwealth 100m champion Michelle Lee Ahye has appealed against her ban to CAS.

US sprinter Gabby Thomas was provisionally suspended in May but cleared in June following new evidence.

The cases against Coleman and Naser remain to be concluded pending the possibility of appeals to CAS.

Meanwhile provisionally suspended on alleged Whereabouts failings are Kenyans Elijah Manangoi, the 2017 world 1500 metres champion, and Rio 2016 800m finalist Alfred Kipketer.

These cases have in the main derived from an energising of effort and attention from early in 2019 onto Whereabouts testing – unannounced out-of-competition sampling being one of the key tools available to detect cheating athletes.

In-competition testing of the kind that confounded Ben Johnson at the 1988 Seoul Olympics increasingly yields fewer results and is more used for profiling purposes, registering new athletes coming on the system, monitoring them and getting their biological markers for their unique Athlete Passports for future comparisons.

There have been no major changes in whereabouts protocol as such, but in 2019 it was announced that the AIU would have a more stringent approach.

The AIU was established as an independent entity by World Athletics in 2017 and went straight into a World Championships in London. Much of its work in 2018 consisted of clearing a huge backlog of cases inherited from the medical and anti-doping department run by World Athletics' previous incarnation - the International Association of Athletics Federations.

In that year there was also a renewed effort to remind athletes about their obligations to file their whereabouts properly to ADAMS (Anti-Doping Administration and Management System). Renewed efforts in that area began to generate growing number of whereabouts failures in the course of 2019, the results of which have been coming through the system this year in the form of first-instance decisions.

For example, the announcement of Ahye’s two-year ban – now appealed – was made on January 7 this year, deriving from an initial investigation in April 2019.

"Strict whereabouts requirements compliance is absolutely necessary for the sport to have effective, no notice, out-of-competition testing,” an AIU spokesperson told insidethegames.

"Doping practices are becoming more and more sophisticated, and harder to detect. These days, the window for detecting banned substances is incredibly narrow as prohibited substances are very quickly eliminated from an athlete’s system.

"It is not good enough to test an athlete in a general way within approximate timeframes. The AIU relies heavily on collecting intelligence and scientific data on each athlete to create individualised testing plans with tests scheduled to the week, day, and hour if necessary. This cannot work without strict whereabouts compliance.

"At the beginning of 2019, and again this year, the AIU made it clear that we would be enforcing the whereabouts rules strongly. Unfortunately, an uptick in missed tests and consequent anti-doping rule violations has occurred despite these warnings.

"The rising number of whereabouts cases reflect the strong enforcement vital to our strategy against doping. The cases are the result of the unpredictable and precise testing programme together with the investigative work that goes into verifying the explanations received from athletes for any missed tests.

"We make no apologies for strict enforcement. Going easy on ‘whereabouts’ doesn’t give innocent athletes a break; it helps cheats escape detection.”

Accounts of recent whereabouts cases have offered clear evidence of the level of detail which it has been necessary to establish in order to proceed with cases of this kind.

The crucial judgement in the Coleman case was the upholding by the World Athletics Disciplinary Panel of his failure to be present for a test in December 2019 as it found he was out Christmas shopping at the time when he had said he would be available for sample collection at his Lexington home.

Coleman argued that he returned home inside the 60-minute window, which lasted from 7:15pm to 8:15pm, and that the DCOs must have left early. The DCOs testified this was not the case, providing a photo taken at 8:21pm, while shopping receipts also cast doubt on Coleman's claim.

A Walmart receipt showed he had purchased 16 items at 8:22pm.

Coleman claimed he returned home, watched the start of a National Football League game - which kicked off at 8:15pm - and must have then left his home again. The Disciplinary Tribunal deemed it was "obvious" that the sprinter in fact did not come home until after that Walmart trip, given other shopping receipts were timestamped at 7:13pm and 7:53pm.

In rendering a two-year ban, the Disciplinary Tribunal described Coleman's behaviour as "very careless at best and reckless at worst" and viewed there to be no mitigating factors which could have reduced the ban.

Kipsang, provisionally suspended on January 10, has found himself with a four-year ban – twice the normal period – having been found guilty of tampering or attempting to tamper with his evidence.

Kipsang had claimed the missed test on May 17, 2019 had been caused by a traffic accident, which had allegedly caused a traffic jam. The accident was claimed to have involved an overturned lorry. The Kenyan distance athlete had provided a photo of the crash but the AIU obtained information which found the image came from an accident reported on August 19, three months after the missed test.

In order to investigate to this level of detail, it is necessary to have sufficient resources. And since its inception the AIU have received on average $8 million (£6 million/€6.8 million) per annum from World Athletics – a significant sum which represents around 15 per cent of the world governing body’s annual budget.

This year's London Marathon was one of the few remaining races in 2020 that was due to generate extra revenue for the AIU in exchange for increased testing ©Getty Images
This year's London Marathon was one of the few remaining races in 2020 that was due to generate extra revenue for the AIU in exchange for increased testing ©Getty Images

An additional $2.5 million (£2 million/€2.1 million) in extra revenue was announced to establish a comprehensive integrity programme for road running testing in 2020 of World Athletics Label Road Races and World Marathon Majors events, although the postponement of the vast bulk of those races because of the coronavirus pandemic diminished this source of funding significantly.

This additional revenue has enabled the AIU to dive deeper into cases than previous investigations have managed. And there has been a reflection of this greater resource in the general number of tests carried out, which rose from 6007 in 2018 to 7,772 last year.

The Naser case included a filing failure on March 16, 2019 and three missed tests on March 12 and April 12 of last year and January 24 of this year.

Filing failures are backdated to the start of the first quarter - so in Naser's case it registered as being on January 1, 2019.

And the Disciplinary Tribunal ruled the alleged violation in April 2019 should not stand, which means Naser had therefore not missed three tests inside the 12-month window.

The AIU investigation into Naser’s Whereabouts failures was already underway when the January 24 failure occurred.

In the wake of the Tribunal’s clearing of the Bahrain athlete, the AIU tweeted an infographic of the process involved, making it clear that stages of it can take months as investigation is carried out and athletes take up their rights for their case to be reviewed.

Extensive investigation has also been involved in the Naser case, which tipped on the Tribunal’s rejection of the AIU charge relating to the alleged missed test on April 12.

Drug tester Enrique Martinez was looking for Flat 11 in Naser's building and found two doors close to one another.

"It is possible to see a photo on Mr Martinez’s contemporaneous report showing two doors close to one another," the Tribunal report read. "What happened next would have been comical were the consequences not so serious.

“The left hand door is a solid wooden door with the number 11 at its side. The right hand door is a double door with a glass pane in each door. At its side is the number 954 and under the number is an intercom. The intercom has a number of buzzers and numbers on each buzzer. Under the number 954 is the number 12 under the intercom.

"In fact, as the video produced by the athlete shows, the numbers 11 and 12 are the numbers of the car parking spaces and are not apartment numbers at all. Building 954 was the right hand door and contained a number of apartments including indeed flat 11. The door which had number 11 at its side was in fact a storage unit and contained a number of gas canisters which are immediately visible when you look up above the door.

"The left hand door did not have an intercom or a buzzer,” the report read. “As it bore the number 11, Mr Martinez assumed this was flat 11 and knocked every five minutes until the hour was up. He obtained no response. This was, of course, not surprising, given that this is a technical room.

Britain's Christine Ohuruogu, who served a one-year ban for whereabouts failures before winning world and then Olympic titles, warns against making assumptions in questions of guilt and innocence ©Getty Images
Britain's Christine Ohuruogu, who served a one-year ban for whereabouts failures before winning world and then Olympic titles, warns against making assumptions in questions of guilt and innocence ©Getty Images

“In fact the intercom for Building 954 did not work and had never worked. Nor does it work today. Mr Martinez did not try that intercom, which he confirmed at his hearing before the panel, it being 6am and he was concerned about waking other people.

“Mr Martinez said in his witness statement that the right hand door was locked. There was a question whether he actually meant "locked" or "closed." The athlete’s evidence was that the door of Building 954 was always open, indeed as a result of the intercom never working. There is no reference in Mr Martinez’s contemporaneous report  to the right hand door. We accept the athlete’s evidence on this point.

"He should have opened the door to building 954 and knocked on the door of Flat 11 inside the building. Had he done that he would have successfully located the athlete at her flat."

Martinez did try to phone Naser, but the Tribunal heard her details were not up to date and there was no number which worked.

Naser had reportedly changed her number several times and had struggled with the ADAMS system which athletes use to enter whereabouts details and other information.

The Tribunal heard she has "never been able to submit her own whereabouts information, let alone successfully log in" and the Bahrain Athletics Association has assigned a member of staff to do so on her behalf.

It was agreed that Naser "did not help herself" in many regards due to the lack of information she had submitted, particularly as she had been warned about missed tests before.

"This was a case very much on the borderline and we hope the athlete will learn from the experience and heed the AIU's warnings," the Tribunal said.

When one drills down to this kind of level in most cases, one finds that the circumstances are rarely clear-cut.

On the eve of the 2006 European Athletics Championships in Gothenburg, Britain’s 400 metres runner Christine Ohuruogu was banned for a year after three whereabouts failures.

The final test missed occurred when Ohuruogu failed to inform the testers of a last-minute change of training venue after a double-booking. 

Due to the circumstances, the Independent Committee stated: "There is no suggestion, nor any grounds for suspicion, that the offence may have been deliberate in order to prevent testing," and that a fair ban would have been 3 months. Ohuruogu passed tests 9 days before and 3 days after her final violation.

Ohuruogu returned to win the 2007 world title and 2008 Olympic title. She retired last year, and has just completed a law degree.

Speaking recently to the Daily Telegraph about the Naser case, she said of her World Championship victory: "Even now, I’m not really sure how to relate to that run: 48.1 is something I do not know what to do with … It’s not something I thought I would have seen in the time I’m seeing it happen."

But she added: "I’m never one to throw aspersions on anyone, with my history, I know what that feels like and I would never do that to anyone else.

"Not everybody is evil and trying to deceive. People do. And that’s one thing to understand. But there’s another part where you have to understand that people are not trying to deceive, people just have chaotic lives. Try and be a bit more human with your assessment, don’t just assume."

Proof, rather than assumption, is the AIU’s business. While several key whereabouts procedures are still to be finally determined, there is a strong hope within this recently established operation that the current attention on such cases will mean far fewer of them in 2021 and beyond.