By Jonathan Gault
October 20, 2020
On Tuesday, the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) announced that world champion sprinter Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain has been cleared to compete, effective immediately, after a World Athletics Disciplinary Tribunal upheld her appeal of her suspension for whereabouts failures. Naser, who won the women’s 400 meters at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships in 48.14, the third-fastest time ever run, had been provisionally suspended since June.
The decision brings an end to what has been a lengthy ordeal. Though Naser’s three whereabouts failures took place between March 12 and April 12, 2019, she was not charged with an anti-doping rule violation until June 2020, allowing her to compete at the World Championships in October 2019. Naser subsequently received a fourth whereabouts failure in January 2020.
The AIU released the decision in its entirety here, and the picture it paints is of an athlete extremely lucky to still be competing. Ultimately, Naser was cleared because the AIU determined the doping control officer (DCO) inadvertently knocked on the wrong door during her third whereabouts failure on April 12.
Due to some confusing labeling, the DCO repeatedly knocked on the door of a storage unit — which was located next to the number 11 — instead of going through a door with the numbers 12 and 954 next to it and eventually finding Naser’s #11 unit. And if that isn’t confusing enough, the DCO had actually done Naser a favor as her whereabouts form said she lived in Building 964 — which doesn’t exist — but the DCO correctly went to Building 954.
Though the tribunal ruled in Naser’s favor, it noted that Naser did not make herself easy to locate by failing to include her phone number or an explanatory note about the confusing building setup in her ADAMS (Anti-Doping Administration & Management System) profile.
“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,” read the tribunal’s decision.
Here’s a look at all four of Naser’s whereabouts failures:
March 12, 2019: Missed test. Naser did not contest this failure.
March 16, 2019: Filing failure. Because this was a filing failure rather than a missed test, it was backdated to January 1, 2019. Naser did not contest this failure.
April 12, 2019: Missed test. Naser contested this failure and the disciplinary tribunal invalidated it.
January 24, 2020: Missed test. Naser contested this failure but the disciplinary tribunal confirmed the missed test. This missed test will remain on Naser’s record until January 24, 2021.
With the April 12 missed test thrown out and the March 16 filing failure backdated to January 1 (the same technicality that allowed Christian Coleman to escape without a suspension in 2019), Naser was cleared — her three remaining whereabouts failures no longer fell within the same 12-month window.
The bottom line: Naser gets to keep her world title and will be eligible to compete in next year’s Olympics in Tokyo. But the details of her case raise several questions about Naser and the whereabouts system at large, which has seen three recent world champions and former marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang suspended in 2020 (we tackled that topic in depth here: LRC 2020 Has Been the Year of Whereabouts Failures. Why?).
Here are the most important takeaways from the decision.
Naser made it very difficult for the DCO to locate her on April 12
Regarding the critical April 12 missed test, the information on file for Naser in ADAMS listed her location as Flat 11, Building 964, Road 833, Block 908, Riffa, Bahrain, with a window of 6-7 a.m. The building number was wrong but, using a screenshot from a previous visit, Naser’s DCO deduced the correct location was Building 954.
Upon arrival at Building 954, the DCO found two doors: a wooden door next to the number 11, and a glass double door next to an intercom and the numbers 12 and 954. The DCO knocked on the wooden door every five minutes for an hour and received no response. He tried to contact Naser by phone, but her ADAMS file did not list a number (which is not required under WADA rules).
Here’s where things get confusing. The wooden door actually housed a storage unit; the numbers 11 and 12 referred to parking spaces, not apartment numbers. Naser claimed the DCO would have found her apartment had he gone through the glass door, which she claimed is always unlocked because the intercom is broken. The DCO wrote in his report that the glass door was locked.
The tribunal, however, wrote “there was a question whether [the DCO] actually meant ‘locked’ or ‘closed'” and chose to believe Naser’s claim that the door was unlocked. For that reason, the tribunal concluded “[the DCO] 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.”
Clearly, Naser did not take the whereabouts system seriously, despite sitting on two whereabouts failures. Re-read the paragraphs above. Naser:
-Had the wrong address on file in ADAMS
-Entered no explanatory information (about the broken intercom or glass door) in ADAMS to aid the DCO in locating her
-Did not have a phone number on file in ADAMS
Even though the disciplinary tribunal sided with Naser, it still noted her carelessness when it came to whereabouts.
“An athlete needs to take great care to ensure she complies with the requirements and makes it as easy as possible for DCOs to make contact,” the tribunal wrote. “That involves monitoring the information provided closely and providing up to date telephone numbers. We do not consider in this case the athlete paid enough attention to these requirements.”
Naser is extremely lucky to have avoided a suspension
Just consider all of the things that had to go Naser’s way for her to be cleared:
1) Her March 16 filing failure was (correctly according to the rules) backdated to January 1. If it wasn’t backdated, she would be banned right now.
2) For the April 12 missed test, her DCO was resourceful enough to deduce 954 was the correct building, but not resourceful enough to enter the building and knock on Naser’s door. If he had stopped the test attempt because Building 964 (the one listed in Naser’s ADAMS profile) does not exist, Naser could have been charged with a filing failure and would have had three whereabouts failures in a 12-month span.
3) The tribunal accepted Naser’s claim over the DCO’s regarding whether the door to her apartment building was locked. Naser said the main glass door to her building is always unlocked. The DCO wrote in his file it was locked when he arrived. But for reasons that aren’t elaborated upon in the decision, the tribunal claimed there was uncertainty as to whether the DCO meant “locked” or “closed” and accepted “the Athlete’s evidence” that it was locked.
Naser has never submitted her own whereabouts information
While Naser, 22, has been in the Registered Testing Pool (and thus responsible for filing whereabouts information) since 2016, she claims she has never been able to successfully log into ADAMS, the program athletes use to file their whereabouts information.
“She gave evidence that she had tried more than once, and on occasion tried to do so with her then boyfriend, but without success,” the decision read.
As a result, Naser was assigned a technical manager by the Bahrain Athletics Association to file whereabouts information on her behalf. This became an issue for her January 24, 2020 missed test. In that instance, Naser’s window was set for 6-7 a.m., but her travel plans had changed late the previous night. By the time she messaged her manager to change her whereabouts information at 2:25 a.m. — less than four hours before her window began — he was asleep and unable to update it before the DCO arrived.
There are serious questions about the timing of this case
It has been known for some time that Naser was allowed to compete at Worlds while sitting on three missed tests. But it’s still staggering how long this case took to conclude. Consider the timing.
Naser registered her third whereabouts failure on April 12, 2019. Yet she was not charged with an anti-doping rule violation until 419 days later — June 4, 2020.
Delays in cases have been an issue for the AIU since it decided to take a more stringent approach to whereabouts cases at the start of 2019. It’s a problem the AIU has acknowledged and is actively working toward improving, hiring two extra staffers to deal with the overflow of cases. And, certainly, the AIU is entitled to some time to gather all of the relevant information in each case before deciding on whether a ban is warranted; athletes’ reputations and livelihoods are at stake.
“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.”
But 419 days is simply unacceptable, particularly if you lose the appeal. If you need to wait more than a year to charge, there should be no doubt that you’re going to get a conviction.
Remember the Christian Coleman case last year? Coleman’s third whereabouts failure in that case took place on April 26, 2019 — two weeks after Naser’s third whereabouts failure — yet he was charged with a potential anti-doping rule violation before Worlds (the charge was withdrawn on September 2, more than three weeks before Worlds). In Coleman’s case, however, it was USADA, not the AIU, that had jurisdiction.
That Naser was allowed to compete at Worlds can be interpreted a couple of ways.
My view: Naser and the AIU were fortunate with the timing. The fact that the AIU waited to charge Naser until well after Worlds isn’t necessarily a credit to their patience — the AIU allowed an athlete whom they ultimately believed had committed an anti-doping rule violation to compete at Worlds over five months after said violation occurred. Yet because of this delay, Naser’s provisional suspension didn’t have a huge impact, as she was suspended for four months during a season in which the Olympics were wiped out. And she didn’t end up missing a World Championships that the tribunal ultimately decided she should have been eligible for.
The opposing, more cynical view, can be summarized by Paul Hunt‘s tweet below:
If I were a cynical man, I would think that the AIU had been told to get her off to avoid the embarrassment of a world champion who shouldn’t have been allowed to compete in the first place being busted.
— Paul Hunt (@pahunt1978) October 20, 2020
That’s an oversimplification. Again, the AIU did ultimately pursue sanctions against Naser, which were ultimately overturned by the three members of the disciplinary tribunal (an independent body whose members are appointed by World Athletics, not the AIU).
But this theory does raise another question about the timeline. Would Naser still have been charged in June had 2020 been a normal year with an Olympics?
Several athletes are unhappy about this decision
When the news of Naser’s suspension broke in June, it didn’t raise a ton of eyebrows: the only women who have run faster than her 48.14 (Marita Koch and Jarmila Kratochvilova) are widely believed to have doped and Bahrain has a poor anti-doping record. Naser may never have failed a test, but the fact that she was cleared has several athletes upset. (The AIU still has the option to appeal the disciplinary tribunal’s ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport).
Scroll through the quote tweets of AIU’s announcement and you won’t find many supporters of the disciplinary tribunal’s decision.
Honestly…I don’t even know what to say anymore https://t.co/Xxs94tqGdr
— Katerina Stefanidi (@KatStefanidi) October 20, 2020
Genuinely lost for words. The fact you can submit a wrong address (and as such not be there), and get away with it is just mind blowing. I hope this goes to CAS and they can show some common sense. Not where you say you are in your 1hr slot= Missed test. What's the confusion 🙃🤯 https://t.co/hiMIXnLida
— Emily Diamond OLY (@EmilyDiamond11) October 20, 2020
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