Jon Brown was one hell of a performer for British athletics. European cross country champion in 1996, he missed out on the Olympic marathon podium by one agonising place at both the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Games – on the latter occasion in temperatures above 30C.
I saw a tweet pop up from him this morning, criticising an opinion piece published by CBC Olympics about the two-year ban recently imposed on the US 100 metres world champion Christian Coleman for failing to make himself available for drug testing during a previously specified hour on three occasions in the space of 12 months.
In other words, falling foul of the whereabouts rule that was introduced by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2005 and is currently overseen within athletics by the Athletics Integrity Unit, which was itself set up by World Athletics in 2017.
"Ignorant opinion whoever wrote this piece," Brown opined. "The whereabouts rules are not hard to follow, every other athlete manages it because their careers absolutely depend upon it. Shopping for crap at Walmart or being at home for an agreed hour? It’s not difficult."
So of course I then read the piece, which was written by senior contributor Morgan Campbell.
While I can fully understand the frustration experienced by Brown, who has been a staunch defender of clean athletics for many years, I think his comments were rather harsh, as Campbell’s piece is taking an overview on the impact of the absence from next season’s planned Olympics of what he describes as the World’s Fastest Man.
(Although that is Usain Bolt, just for the record. World’s Fastest Banned-Subject-To-Likely-CAS-Appeal Man is more strictly accurate.)
Campbell makes some interesting points about Coleman’s potential to appeal beyond the confines of track and field within US sport, citing his 2016 achievement of running the 40-yard dash that has long been the "gold standard of speed" with American Football’s National Football League in 4.12 seconds – a tenth of a second faster than the best time previously recorded under NFL combine conditions.
"That figure might mean little in the track and field world, but it translates Coleman’s speed into a language U.S. sports fans understand," Campbell writes, adding that it positions the sprinter as a "bridge" between a sport that gains "massive attention for two weeks every Olympic summer" and "the whole North American fanbase that could make the whole enterprise more lucrative."
That being so, Coleman’s folly in failing to take sufficient notice of the rules is all the more lamentable.
I imagine that what stuck in Brown’s throat about this piece was the attitude expressed towards the whereabouts ruling, and the excuses advanced for Coleman’s failure to manage it.
"Coleman is so fast that the sport's drug testers can't keep up with him, and that's the problem," writes Campbell. Well no it’s not. The problem is that Coleman couldn’t keep up with himself.
He was lucky to get away with being able to run at the Doha World Championships after a loophole allowed one of the three missed tests he had registered to shift itself beyond the critical time-zone of a 12-month period.
But with two strikes still on his record, he earned a conclusive third – subject to appeal – by going out Christmas shopping last year (at, among other places, Walmart) when he should have been sitting at home during his allotted daily hour.
The writer does acknowledge this failure: "Four whereabouts violations in a 12-month span hint that Coleman either doesn't understand, or simply doesn't care about the importance of routine paperwork."
But he then moves on to excuse the sprinter’s maladministration: "If the time drain and tedium of constantly updating his location, just to facilitate unannounced drug tests, simply overwhelmed Coleman, I get it. I empathize. I've been there. The world's fastest human is still human.
"But those doping control location forms are just like tax returns, in that failing to keep them up to date will cost you in the long run."
Brown’s point is that professional athletes take the system seriously because it underpins their livelihood, and that it is not a complex system.
What makes Coleman’s case more aggravating is the fact that he had so nearly jeopardised his chance of running in last year’s World Championships through, at best, inattention to detail.
You might think that would have put him, and his management, on high alert when it came to being where he was supposed to be at the Special Hour each day, no matter how much of a drag it was.
Last September, shortly before he ran in the World Championships, Coleman commented: "I don’t know what people look at athletes as, but we’re human beings. And nobody’s perfect. People make mistakes. People have things going on in their life. People have stuff going on their head.
"And as you can imagine, I’m 23 years old, I travel around the world. I have things going on in my life. And the stress of being a professional athlete in general can definitely weigh heavy on your mind at that.
"So sometimes, you forget to update the app and it just is what it is. But it has nothing to do with doping. It has nothing to do with trying to dodge tests."
An athlete view of a very different tone was expressed when news of Coleman’s test failures first emerged by Britain’s 2014 European 400m hurdles champion Eilidh Doyle. “Even when I was in hospital for 3 days, having my baby, my first thought was I better update my whereabouts. It’s just what has to be done to ensure credibility within our sport. #Cleansport,” she tweeted.
The testers argue that, yes of course people make mistakes, but that is why it takes three strikes within a 12-month period to initiate sanctions.
Even if Coleman doesn’t appeal, or if his appeal fails, he will still most likely be only 25 upon his return, with time still to re-establish himself at the top of his event. Will he regard the whereabouts rule more consistently then? You like to think so.
One of the other clear messages that has come through amidst the recent cases involving Coleman and the women’s world 400 metres champion Salwa Eid Naser, who avoided a two-year whereabouts ban last month in what the World Athletics Disciplinary Panel described as a “borderline” case, is that some in the sport do not equate missing tests with being found to have taken prohibited substances.
This is not a hard thing to understand. But it is a cause of huge frustration among those who seek to maintain fair competition by testing as effectively as possible.
An athlete might of course miss a test through carelessness. But they might also miss it deliberately because of what it might show up. And unless there is the chance of surprising cheats, who may have taken substances that remain detectable for short periods, or that may be disguised at short notice, there is no groundwork for establishing a working system.
A cricket-loving friend of mine recently contrasted the attitude exhibited in some quarters to whereabouts sanctions in athletics with the way news of the ban on the Bangladesh captain and star all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan was received last year.
On October 30 Al Hasan was banned by the International Cricket Council for two years, one of them suspended, for breaching their code by failing to report three approaches by a bookie suspected of being corrupt.
There was no suggestion that Al Hasan had engaged in match fixing, but by not adhering to the letter of the law in an area that has severely compromised the game’s core values in recent years, he made himself liable to a punishment which kept him out of last year’s World T20 and would have prevented him from playing in the Indian Premier League this year.
"I am obviously sad to have been banned from the game I love, but I completely accept my sanction," Al Hasan said.