September 3, 2019
On Monday, USADA announced that it was dropping its case against American sprinter Christian Coleman, clearing the world’s fastest man over 100 meters to compete at the IAAF World Championships later this month in Doha, Qatar. USADA had initially charged Coleman with an anti-doping rule violation for three whereabouts failures during a 12-month period — which would trigger a two-year ban — but withdrew the charge after the first of those failures was backdated two months.
If the paragraph above leaves you confused, we don’t blame you. We break it down below and explain how the world’s top 100-meter man and the favorite for gold not just in Doha, but next year’s Olympics in Tokyo, was cleared.
Here’s everything you need to know about the case.
How does out-of-competition drug testing work? What’s a whereabouts failure?
Top athletes are often drug-tested at major competitions like the Olympics, but they are also tested out-of-competition so they can be caught when they may not be expecting a test.
Top American track & field athletes are included in USADA’s Registered Testing Pool (RTP). At the beginning of each quarter of the year, athletes in the RTP must provide USADA with detailed information for where they will be on each day in that quarter. Most importantly, they must provide a one-hour window every day stating their specific location where they must be available for testing (though they can be tested outside of this window). Athletes can update it if their schedule changes by sending an email or text to USADA.
There are two types of whereabouts failures: a missed test, and a filing failure. A missed test occurs when a doping control officer (DCO) makes an attempt to test the athlete during their one-hour window and the athlete is not available. A filing failure occurs when the DCO makes an attempt to test the athlete outside that one-hour window — based on the information athlete provided in their whereabouts filing — and the athlete cannot be located or confirms they are unavailable. An athlete can also receive a filing failure if the information in their whereabouts filing is inaccurate or incomplete.
If an athlete registers three whereabouts failures in a 12-month span, they have committed a whereabouts violation and are subject to a two-year ban from the sport.
What drug tests did Christian Coleman miss?
Anti-doping authorities tried to test Coleman on June 6, 2018, January 16, 2019, and April 26, 2019, and were unable to do so.
That’s three in 12 months! So he should be banned, right?
Not so fast. While the attempt on 1/16/19 went down as a missed test, the attempts on 6/6/18 and 4/26/19 were both marked as filing failures. And, according to WADA rules, filing failures are backdated to the start of the quarter in which they occurred. Which means that the effective dates of Coleman’s three whereabouts failures were April 1, 2018, January 16, 2019, and April 1, 2019. Since 4/1/18 and 4/1/19 do not fall within the same 365-day window, Coleman was only considered to have two whereabouts failures within a 12-month span. Hence, no ban.
Why were these considered filing failures and not missed tests?
Because on both 6/6/18 and 4/26/19, the DCO attempted to test Coleman outside the one-hour window. According to Alan Abrahamson, Coleman’s one-hour window on 6/6/18 should have placed him at his residence in Tennessee between 7-8 a.m. A DCO showed up to Coleman’s residence at 7:55 a.m. and started the collection attempt at 8:01 (one minute after the one-hour window). But Coleman was actually in Eugene, Oregon, at the time, getting therapy for an injury. Because Coleman was not where he said he would be in his whereabouts filing, it went down as a filing failure.
Wait — so if Coleman’s June 6, 2018, test had been initiated one minute earlier, would he still be facing a ban?
Possibly. On 6/6/18, the tester showed up with five minutes remaining in Coleman’s one-hour window. Presumably, if the tester had tried to test Coleman a minute earlier, at exactly 8:00, it would have counted as “missed test” (which aren’t backdated) instead of a “filing failure” (which are backdated). That would mean Coleman would be facing three whereabouts failures in a 12-month window under the rules.
Presumably, Coleman’s team would have protested some of the whereabouts failures, arguing Coleman was just extremely careless and not malicious and that they shouldn’t count as whereabouts failures.
Abrahamson’s account is favorable to Coleman, but it shows Coleman to be extremely careless. On 4/26/19, with presumably two whereabouts failures on his docket (we highly doubt Coleman knew that his first whereabouts failure would be backdated), Coleman listed he would be in one state for his one-hour window, in another state for training, but was actually hundreds of miles away in Iowa for the Drake Relays during both time periods. When contacted by the DCO, Coleman asked if he could be tested at Drake, then called back and asked if he could be tested the next day when he returned home to Kentucky. He then updated his whereabouts location and one-hour window for April 26 (which had been set for after the tester actually arrived) to show he was in Iowa.
Why did USADA charge him in the first place then?
USADA was likely looking at the dates on which it unsuccessfully attempted to test Coleman — 6/8/18, 1/16/19, and 4/26/19. In all three instances, a whereabouts failure resulted, and the rules clearly state that three whereabouts failures in a 12-month period constitutes an anti-doping violation.
As a result, USADA charged Coleman with an anti-doping violation on August 12, according to Abrahamson. Coleman’s team responded by saying that USADA was not applying the rules correctly, pointing them to a comment in WADA’s International Standard for Testing and Investigations (ISTI). This specific comment — there are several in the document intended to help explain the rules — stated that filing failures should be backdated to the first day of the quarter in which they occurred.
And there is a rule that says comments shall be used to interpret the rules.
USADA went to WADA to confirm that this was the case, and WADA confirmed that Coleman’s team was correct: the 6/6/18 filing failure should be backdated to 4/1/18.
If Coleman’s last whereabouts failure was April 26, 2019, why are we just finding this out now four months later?
We’re not sure. The WADA Code says anti-doping authorities “shall promptly give the Athlete notice” if they have determined a violation has occurred. Abrahamson says USADA first notified Coleman of the 4/26/19 filing failure on May 2, but did not formally confirm it until July 3, and did not formally charge him with a violation (three whereabouts failures) until August 12.
How often is Christian Coleman drug-tested?
Fairly frequently. USADA shows him being drug-tested 22 times in the last two years (and six times so far in the third quarter of 2019) and Abrahamson says he has been tested at least 36 times in the last two years.
Coleman is free to compete. No doubt his reputation is diminished, USADA’s reputation is diminished, and the doping questions that are always around our sport remain.
Coleman, however, still has two whereabout failures on his record and needs to dot his i’s and cross his t’s through March 31, 2020. Since the presumably binding interpretation now is that filing failures are backdated, Coleman can not have any filing errors until then (since any that occur during the first quarter of 2020 would be backdated to 1/1/20). He cannot have any “missed tests” during the one-hour window until January 16, 2020.
Coleman’s whereabouts failures:
6/6/18: Filing failure, backdated to 4/1/2018. Test was initiated one minute after his one-hour window. Coleman says he stated in Eugene, Oregon, an extra day for therapy after Rome Diamond League, according to Abrahamson. No longer in 12-month window.
1/16/19: Missed test during one-hour window. No explanation given by Abrahamson. Counts as a strike against Coleman until 1/16/2020.
4/26/19: Filing failure, backdated to 4/1/2019. Coleman was at Drake Relays, but didn’t include his travel on his whereabouts form. Counts as a strike against Coleman until 3/31/2020.
Links: WADA Rules (Whereabout violations are discussed beginning on page 86)
*Alan Abrahamson article on Coleman’s 3 missed tests