2020 Has Been the Year of Whereabouts Failures. Why?

Nine athletes have been suspended for whereabouts failures in 2020, compared to two in all of 2018 and 2019 combined. What’s going on?

By Jonathan Gault
October 14, 2020

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It’s a little hard to pinpoint when, exactly, 2020 became the Year of Whereabouts Failures.

Was it in January, when former marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang and 2016 Olympic 800-meter finalist Alfred Kipketer, both of Kenya, were provisionally suspended? Was it on June 5, when Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser, eight months removed from one of the greatest 400-meter races in history, suffered the same fate? What about June 16, when reigning 100-meter world champion and Olympic favorite Christian Coleman, who narrowly avoided a suspension for whereabouts failures last year, announced he was facing a ban of up to two years for his third whereabouts failure in a 12-month period? Certainly by the time 2017 1500-meter world champion Elijah Manangoi was suspended on July 23 — the third recent world champion banned for the same violation in two months — it was clear. 2020 was still the Year of COVID-19. But in track & field, it was also the Year of Whereabouts Failures.

Through the first nine months of 2020, nine athletes from three countries (four Kenyans, three Americans, two Bahrainis) have been provisionally suspended for whereabouts failures — by comparison, only two athletes were suspended for the same violation in 2018 and 2019 combined. Of those nine, three have had their suspensions confirmed, ranging from 18 months (American sprinter Deajah Stevens) to four years (Kipsang, whose suspension was lengthened after he was also convicted of tampering during his defense). One, American sprinter Gabby Thomas, is now free to compete after the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), which oversees doping cases for World Athletics, withdrew the charge against her in July. The other four — Kipketer, Coleman, Naser, and Manangoi — remain in some stage of the appeal process: not convicted, but not yet able to compete again.

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All of which naturally produces one question: why?

Strategic Testing + Increased Scrutiny of Excuses

To get an answer, we have to rewind to the start of 2019. That is when the AIU decided it needed to take a new approach to whereabouts, the foundation upon which track & field’s out-of-competition drug testing system is built. LetsRun.com dove into everything you need to know about the whereabouts system last year, but a quick refresher: the world’s top athletes are placed by the AIU into the Registered Testing Pool (currently, there are 776 athletes in the pool). Members of the pool must submit certain information — including a daily overnight address, competition schedule, and one 60-minute window per day during which they must be available for drug testing at a specific location of the athlete’s choice. Fail to fulfill any of those obligations, and you’re hit with a whereabouts failure. Rack up three whereabouts failures in 12 months, and you’re banned from the sport for up to two years.

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As it prepared to begin a year in which it would conduct an average of 21 out-of-competition tests per day, the AIU, headed by Australian Brett Clothier (pictured), made three specific changes to its whereabouts system. First: moving forward, the AIU would spend more time planning out the specific times it would test each athlete, in part to make testing schedules less predictable (while athletes must be available during their 60-minute window, the AIU is free to test athletes outside their window as well).

“Doping practices are becoming more and more sophisticated, and harder to detect,” Clothier wrote in a statement to LetsRun.com. “These days, the window for detecting banned substances is incredibly narrow as prohibited substances are very quickly eliminated from an athlete’s system. That is why the AIU out-of-competition testing program is designed to be specific and targeted. Tests are not planned in a general way. The AIU relies heavily on collecting intelligence and scientific data on each athlete to create individualized testing plans with tests scheduled to the week, day, and hour if necessary.”

The second major change: when an athlete missed a test, the AIU would scrutinize their explanation in much greater detail than in years past.

There third major change: more testing. The total number of out-of-competition samples collected rose 29% in 2019, up to 7,772 from 6,007 the year before. Combine more strategic testing, increased scrutiny of excuses and increased testing volume and you’ve got an explanation for the increase in whereabouts cases this year (because cases take a while to process, almost all of the missed tests for athletes suspended in 2020 occurred in 2019).

No nation has struggled with whereabouts failures more than Kenya, with Kenyan athletes registering almost as many whereabouts suspensions this year (four) than the rest of the world combined (five). Test volume is certainly a factor. Kenyan athletes were responsible for 23% of all out-of-competition samples collected in 2019 — almost double the next-closest country.

Agent Davor Savija, who as head of Ikaika Sports represents a number of Kenyan athletes, has noticed the increased focus.

“For several years we had five to eight athletes in the international out-of-competition Registered Testing Pool [on our team],” said Savija. “At the moment, that number is over 15.”

One of the questions in Kenya, however, is whether the increased scrutiny is catching genuine cheats or clean athletes unaccustomed to dealing with the whereabouts system. Kenya’s doping problems are well-publicized — over 50 Kenyans are currently banned from the sport — so the former is obviously an option. But widespread out-of-competition testing is a relatively new development in Kenya, made possible by the establishment of the WADA lab in Nairobi in 2018.

Manangoi, in a statement on his Facebook page in July, claimed he was not trying to cover up doping.

“My case has nothing to do with prohibited substances and I’ve always competed as a clean athlete,” Manangoi wrote. “[2019] was the worst period of my career when I was upset through injury which impacted everything on and off the track.”

Manangoi’s agent declined a LetsRun interview request for Manangoi, stating that his case was “still quite open”; Jasper Rugut, CEO of the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya, did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.

Savija believes better education about whereabouts requirements — especially in the native language of athletes — push notification reminders, and prompt communication from the AIU in relation to missed tests could strengthen the whereabouts system in Kenya and help protect clean athletes.

With the changes to the whereabouts system at the beginning of 2019, the AIU anticipated an increase in cases, and hired a fourth person to its internal legal team early in the year. Yet the system still became backlogged quickly. According to the AIU, it dealt with, on average, five to seven new unsuccessful test attempts every week in 2019, each of which had to be examined. The AIU hired a fifth person to its legal team in 2020 in an attempt to speed things up.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IAAF Salwa Eid Naser after winning gold in Doha (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IAAF)

The backlog ended up causing the AIU to take a public relations hit when it was revealed that two athletes were allowed to compete at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, even though both had already registered three whereabouts failures. One of those athletes was Salwa Eid Naser, who won women’s 400m gold in 48.14, the third-fastest time ever, and whose provisional suspension was not announced until June 2020 — eight months after she competed at Worlds.

The other athlete in Doha sitting on three missed tests was Kenyan distance runner Alex Korio Oloitiptip, who registered his third whereabouts failure of 2019 on July 19. Yet he was allowed to compete in the 10,000-meter final at Worlds on October 6 and was not provisionally suspended until March 17, 2020.

Regarding Korio and Naser, the AIU explained that whereabouts cases “have very specific requirements that must be met” before a charge can be filed.

“As a general point, whereabouts cases often involve complex factual scenarios that require investigation,” an AIU spokesperson wrote in an email to LetsRun.com. “Cases are generally not concluded soon after the date of the third whereabouts failure, but often will only be finalized months later after all the necessary evidence supporting the charge is gathered…In an ideal world, it would be preferable to conclude such cases prior to a big competition, but if an investigation into an athlete’s case is on-going, the AIU will wait until the conclusion of its investigation before issuing a charge.”

In Oloitiptip’s case, however, there was no athlete explanation to explore; he never offered one to the AIU. Yet it still took the AIU 242 days to suspend him. 

“We have dedicated more resources into this area in 2020 to get timelines down,” the AIU spokesperson wrote. “However, the timelines are dictated by the amount of investigation and evidence gathering is required in a case. Generally, whereabouts cases will take months to investigate and bring to charge.”

The Wilson Kipsang Case

For the sport to improve, these timelines must be shortened. However, the case of Wilson Kipsang proves why thorough investigations of athlete explanations are required.

Wilson Kipsang enjoying a cold one after setting the world record in the marathon in 2013

Between April 27, 2018, and May 17, 2019, Kipsang, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist and winner of five World Marathon Majors, missed four tests. Kipsang was provisionally suspended in January 2020 and appealed his suspension, but his appeal fell apart under close scrutiny.

Kipsang claimed he was delayed returning home for his first missed test in April 2018 because of a landslide caused by heavy rain; the AIU combed weather data and found no evidence of heavy rain or a landslide on the date in question. For his third missed test in April 2019, Kipsang, his wife, and his security guard all claimed he arrived home in time for his 10-11 p.m. window. Yet the doping control officer (DCO) stated Kipsang did not arrive until 11:20 and provided evidence of multiple attempted calls to him between 10:55 and 10:59, an account confirmed by the DCO’s driver/chaperone. Most egregiously, Kipsang claimed he missed his fourth and final test, in May 2019, because of a traffic jam caused by an overturned truck. As part of his defense, he sent a photo of the truck to the AIU; the photo was later revealed to have been taken in August, three months after Kipsang’s missed test.

Even After Long Delays, Sometimes The AIU Reverses Its Decision

Even months of investigation does not guarantee the correct outcome, however. Just ask Gabby Thomas.

Thomas, the 2018 NCAA indoor 200-meter champion for Harvard, was provisionally suspended for whereabouts failures on May 1, 2020 — 225 days after her third missed test — only for the AIU to withdraw the charge two months later, after it claimed Thomas provided new evidence that showed she was not at fault.

A deeper look into Thomas’ case reveals some troubling testing practices.

Thomas’ first missed test came on April 22, 2019, when she was still a student at Harvard University (Thomas turned professional after the 2018 outdoor season but had one year left at Harvard). Thomas set her testing window between 9-10 p.m. at her Harvard dorm. Thomas was not at home when the DCO showed up that night during her window; she was at a movie theater with friends nearby.

The DCO called Thomas when she could not locate her, and, according to Thomas, said she had 10 minutes to get back to her dorm for the test. Thomas said she could make it back, but it might take longer than 10 minutes. Thomas eventually made it back to her dorm before 10 p.m., but when she arrived, the DCO had gone. Two months later, Thomas was notified she had been charged with a missed test.

“I trusted them to follow their rules,” Thomas told LetsRun.com. “So I thought, okay, well if they’re going to give me a missed test, then it’s probably because I deserved it…[The DCO] said, ‘Look, I have to go in 10 minutes,’ — she said [I had] 10 minutes to get there. I just assumed it was the rules that she had to leave.”

In fact, the rules state the DCO must stay for the full hour window; Thomas claimed the DCO only stayed for 18 minutes. Eventually, Thomas was able to provide an Uber receipt showing she made it back to her dorm before 10 p.m. — this was the “new evidence” that ultimately caused the AIU to withdraw the missed test and drop its case against her.

But Thomas said that’s not the only issue she has run into while being tested. She said she has had AIU DCOs show up outside her 60-minute window yet mark the test as occurring within her 60-minute window — something that has never happened to her while she’s been tested by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). And while Thomas took responsibility for her second missed test, she also believes her third missed test should never have counted.

On the day of her third missed test, September 19, 2019, Thomas was visiting her boyfriend at Yale University and had set her window for 7-8 a.m.

“[I was] staying in a house with about eight other guys,” Thomas said. “A few of them were awake, a few of them weren’t.”

That morning, she awoke to find multiple missed calls from the DCO and said she tried to call him back but he did not pick up. Thomas also said no one in the house ever heard the DCO knock on the door — and that the DCO himself did not even mention he had knocked on the door in his initial report. (Later, the DCO filed a supplementary report in which he claimed to have knocked).

“It’s a very dodgy neighborhood, it’s New Haven, it was a very weird house, a very weird area, kind of in the ‘hood, so my guess is he was a little confused, a little scared, and didn’t want to start banging on the door at 7:00 in the morning in such a scary area,” Thomas said.

Though she has since been cleared, Thomas came away from the process unnerved — despite seven months of investigation, the AIU had still decided to charge her, even though she believed the facts had been on her side.

“They completely ignored the facts and they said, we’re going to do what we want, we’re going to charge you anyway,” Thomas said. “So that, to me, was very concerning.”

LetsRun.com reached out to the AIU about the Thomas case and received the following response:

The AIU will not respond in detail to your questions. In the case of Gabrielle Thomas, the AIU prepared detailed written reasons for the decision that there was no violation. As is her right under the anti-doping rules, Ms Thomas requested that this decision not be published. Following receipt of your questions, the AIU contacted Ms Thomas’ legal representative to clarify the situation and he informed us that his client had not authorized the publication of any comments or story on her case on Letsrun.com. Given this position from the athlete, the AIU will only make the following comments: 1) as we stated publicly on 3 July, the withdrawal of charges was because of new evidence provided to the AIU by the athlete that was not previously disclosed by her and 2) the facts detailed in your questions are either incomplete or are disputed by the AIU and other witnesses in the case.

After her third whereabouts failure, Thomas bought a Ring doorbell and decided that, until the missed tests on her record expired, she would record herself walking around outside every day during her one-hour window “to make sure that no one’s trying to get me and make sure no one’s trying to give me a missed test. I’m just very paranoid.”

Over 12 months have passed since her last missed test, meaning Thomas now has a clean record.

The Christian Coleman Case

Christian Coleman beating Gatlin at 2017 Worlds

The AIU will be tested again in the coming months by Christian Coleman, who is appealing the highest-profile whereabouts suspension the sport has ever seen. Last year, Coleman was set to be banned for three whereabouts failures by USADA, but the case was ultimately dropped on a technicality: Coleman was able to show one of the tests should have been backdated to fall outside of the 12-month window. While he was never suspended, Coleman and the entire world knew he still had two whereabouts failure on his record until January 16, 2020.

In June 2020, the AIU provisionally suspended Coleman after he was charged with missing another test on December 9, 2019.

As that news became public, Coleman — who, as the reigning 100-meter world champion, was poised to become one of the faces of the Tokyo Olympics — directed a torrent of criticism toward the AIU, claiming the December incident was not a genuine testing attempt, but a “purposeful attempt to get me to miss a test.”

Coleman, who claims he was at a nearby mall Christmas shopping at the start of his one-hour window that night, alleged multiple failures by the DCO during his test attempt, and the resulting “he-said, she-said” could determine whether the world’s fastest man will be eligible for the Olympics (three whereabouts failures carries a two-year ban, but that can be reduced to one year depending on the athlete’s degree of fault).

Coleman alleges he arrived home before the end of his window (7:15-8:15 p.m.) on the night in question; the DCO claims he was at Coleman’s residence the entire time and never saw him. Coleman also claims the address the DCO listed in his unsuccessful attempt report was incorrect. Finally, Coleman criticized the AIU for ordering the DCO not to call Coleman during the test attempt — something Coleman claimed occurred  “literally every other time” he could not be located for a test — though a call is not required under WADA rules.

“I support USADA, WADA and the AIU to keep athletes and competition clean and fair,” Coleman tweeted in June. “But the system must change. I thought the point of the organization was to keep the sport clean by testing everyone and catching cheaters. Not attempt to catch people when they’re not home and make no attempts to actually test them and mess with the livelihoods of people who are clearly not doping. This isn’t justice for anybody. Not me, not them, not the sport, who wins here?”

The AIU declined to comment specifically on the Coleman case, citing its ongoing nature.

USADA Head Travis Tygart: “I Hate The Whereabouts System, I’ll Be Honest…Unfortunately, There Is No Better Way Now To Guarantee Successful Out-Of-Competition Testing”

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So is the whereabouts system a problem as currently constructed?

“I hate the whereabouts system, I’ll be honest,” said USADA CEO Travis Tygart on the Clean Sport Collective podcast in July.

An anti-doping agency’s responsibility isn’t just to catch dopers, but to protect clean athletes, and Tygart believes that the whereabouts system doesn’t always accomplish the second facet.

“I wish there were a better way and I hate the possibility of a non-intentional cheater getting a sanction for what might just be an inadvertent paperwork-type violation,” Tygart said in an interview with LetsRun.com.

Tygart also believes that athletes from countries with a robust domestic testing program in place have a higher risk of missing a test — should they fail to fulfill their obligations — than athletes from countries who do not test as frequently. But he views the recent set of whereabouts cases in track & field as evidence that inequity is being erased.

“Internationally now, you’re seeing athletes held to this,” Tygart said. “[That] is a really, really good thing…that clearly indicates that the AIU is doing testing around the world like never before. And that we should all be thrilled with.”

Ultimately, Tygart may not like the whereabouts system. But, barring a breakthrough in testing technology, he knows it is necessary.

“Unfortunately there is no better way now to guarantee successful out-of-competition testing, which is absolutely necessary to protect the clean athletes’ rights to compete on a level playing field,” Tygart said.

AIU: “This Is Absolutely Necessary For The Sport To Have Effective, No Notice, Out-Of-Competition Testing”

AIU head Brett Clothier also offered a strong defense of the whereabouts system.

“[Out-of-competition testing] cannot work without strict whereabouts compliance and we make no apologies for strict enforcement,” Clothier wrote in a statement to LetsRun.com. “This is absolutely necessary for the sport to have effective, no notice, out-of-competition testing. Going easy on ‘whereabouts’ doesn’t give innocent athletes a break; it helps cheats cover themselves. Put simply, if whereabouts compliance is not enforced strictly, doping will go undetected.”

So back to the Year of Whereabouts Failures. Who’s at fault here for all these suspensions?

The general consensus among the athletics community is that it remains with the athlete. Yes, the AIU may have taken a more stringent approach to whereabouts tests starting in 2019, but missing three tests in 12 months is difficult, particularly since an athlete with a missed test on their record should already be on high alert.

“If they come to my place and they don’t find me, it’s not their fault — it’s my fault at that point,” 2016 Olympic silver medalist Paul Chelimo said on the LetsRun podcast in July. “So really, when it gets to a point I have two strikes, the third one, I’d rather just be running around my house every day and just wait for them…It’s your career. It’s everything. If you’re not serious about it, then just retire.”

2011 1500-meter world champion Jenny Simpson went a step further.

“If you miss three tests, it’s either because you’re cheating or because you’re an idiot and under both circumstances, you shouldn’t be able to compete,” Simpson told LetsRun.com last year.

Tygart agreed that the whereabouts system is “relatively simple and easy to abide by.”

“If you’re a professional and it’s your job, you just have to have the diligence and pay attention to it,” Tygart said. “It just becomes a part of being an elite level athlete…I hear a lot of athletes say look, the one-hour is really easy to comply with because I give it at 6 a.m. and if someone knocks on my door twice a month at 6 a.m. or rings the doorbell, that’s fine.”

And then there is the possibility that some of the athletes suspended this year were cheaters who purposefully avoided tests because they knew they would test positive — which is, after all, the entire point of the whereabouts system. Many in the sport raised eyes after Naser’s win at the 2019 World Championships, given Bahrain’s recent history of suspended athletes (Olympic steeple champ Ruth Jebet and Olympic marathon silver medalist Eunice Kirwa, to name two) and the fact that her time of 48.14 had been bettered just twice over 400 meters, both times by two women heavily suspected of doping. Naser proved impossible to contact for this story — neither her agent Juan Pineda nor the Bahrain Athletics Association responded to interview requests — though she did deny doping in an Instagram live video after her suspension was announced.

“I’ve never been a cheat,” Naser said. “I will never be. I only missed three drug tests, which is normal. It happens. It can happen to anybody.”

Many athletes, however, would disagree with Naser’s assessment that missing three tests is “normal.” And for the record, Naser actually missed four tests: three before Worlds, and a fourth in January 2020.

Looking Ahead – Will Technology Help Erase Doubt?

Gabby Thomas after her NCAA indoor 200m record (photo via Bert Richardson)

The fact that an athlete can be suspended for whereabouts failures without testing positive is simultaneously one of the system’s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. Because while it enables the AIU and national anti-doping agencies to catch cheaters who are too smart to test positive, it may occasionally punish clean athletes as well. Thomas believes her case should be used as an example of how both athletes and testing agencies can improve moving forward.

2019 was Thomas’ first year in the whereabouts system, and she admits she could have been more diligent in staying on top of her whereabouts. For two of her three alleged missed tests, she was not at the location specified during her one-hour window (though she made it back in time for one of them).

“I was in college and I don’t think I took it as seriously as I could have,” Thomas said.

First and foremost, the responsibility to file correct and timely whereabouts information falls on the athlete. But in order to file that information, an athlete has to know what they’re doing. Like Thomas, Chelimo said he missed two tests shortly after being added to the Registered Testing Pool following the 2016 Olympics.

“I didn’t know how it works,” Chelimo said.

Thus, education about the system is critical, and it needs to come from coaches, agents, and the AIU, which is working on spreading its message.

Recently, Thomas was one of several athletes and coaches on a Zoom call with representatives from the AIU and USADA, who attempted to answer questions about the AIU and its anti-doping efforts. Though she feels the AIU spokesperson wasn’t prepared to adequately answer all of the questions on the call — “it’s a little frustrating,” Thomas said — she believes the outreach the AIU is attempting is a necessary step for an organization that was only formed in 2017.

“I think a big part of the whereabouts issues that we’re seeing right now, probably 90% of it, is people don’t know what the AIU is, people don’t know what the AIU does, and athletes do not understand that there are two different testing pools that you can be a part of: one is USADA, and one is the AIU,” Thomas said.

Thomas said athlete education only goes so far, however. Yes, she could have taken her whereabouts more seriously, but Thomas said she would not have had a case to answer had her doping control officers done their job properly.

Her view? Testers and athletes must work together to create a better system. Athletes, she said, need to learn the rules to know exactly what is expected of them. DCOs, meanwhile, must undergo more extensive training and should be required to record themselves knocking on athletes’ doors during test attempts. (The AIU says “DCOs are requested to record the testing attempt now with photos or video as appropriate in the event of an unsuccessful testing attempt.”)

The bottom line, from Thomas’ perspective: it’s okay if the rules are strict — as long as they are enforced correctly.

“If athletes are held to really strict standards, then DCOs should be too,” Thomas said.

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