After years of fighting steroids and drug cheats, the World Anti-Doping Agency is facing a new obstacle – the right to privacy.
WADA president John Fahey opens a European tour Tuesday and will face questions about the agency’s revamped “whereabouts” rule for out-of-competition testing.
Hardly a day goes by without more athletes or groups complaining about the system, which requires athletes to give three months’ notice of their location for one hour each day – seven days a week, between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. – for testing. The information is registered online and can be updated by e-mail or text message.
Athletes claim the system does not give them a guaranteed moment of freedom away from dope testers, not even when they’re on the beach or at the disco. They say it goes against their basic right to privacy, something held in high esteem in Europe.
Fahey will meet with government ministers in Germany and Spain and several leaders of international sports federations to further cement the fight against doping. He’ll have to defend his rules against charges they are invasive and go beyond what is needed to catch cheats.
“Maybe in the future they will find a tag they can put on us like dogs have,” U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones said.
“Is this the time of the inquisition, or what?” asked FIFA medical committee chairman Michel D’Hooghe, adding that soccer players cannot even get a respite during their summer holidays.
From Rafael Nadal to Serena Williams to Michael Ballack, from athletics to skiing, it seems no one is happy.
“I mean why not just have a GPS chip in our skin and they can just figure out where we are,” women’s World Cup ski leader Lindsey Vonn said.
In Belgium, 65 athletes have started court proceedings against the whereabouts system, citing the European Convention on Human Rights. WADA says it has taken enough legal advice to make sure the rules are within the provisions.
“Where is the middle point between what is the fight against doping and what are human rights? This is the debate,” Spanish Sports Minister Jaime Lissavetzky said at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
What at first amounted to an mere adaptation of the out-of-competition rule to close some loopholes and streamline it across all sports and continents, is now spiralling into a global controversy.
In-competition controls have always been straightforward. An athlete shows up and competes at the stadium and is tested after the event.
However, as doping became more sophisticated, athletes would dope during training and make sure all traces were gone by the time of competition. So testers started checking out of competition, and some athletes made a sport of disappearing for months, only to come back at championships to win medals.
This prompted WADA and others to bring in whereabouts requirements. The previous rule made athletes give notice of their whereabouts five days a week. Since Jan. 1, that has been extended to seven days a week.
The rule has been backed by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.
“Sports today has to pay a price for suspicion,” he said. “The best way to alleviate the suspicion is to allow for out-of-competition testing.”
The athletes can only be punished if they are not at a place of their choice one hour a day. Three missed tests in an 18-month period results in sanctions, including a possible lifelong exclusion from the Olympics.
Three years ago, British runner Christine Ohuruogu was banned 12 months for missing three out-of-competition doping tests. She came back to win world and Olympic gold in the 400 metres.
“We are athletes but we are also human, with human fallibilities. Sometimes things don’t always go to plan,” she said.
International athletes complain they live on short-notice plane flights and have to juggle their schedules on a daily basis because of early elimination or sudden injury.
“You get flustered and you forget where you’re supposed to be,” Ohuruogu said.
WADA has already met with athletes’ groups to defend the whereabouts rules, saying the complaints are often based on a lack of knowledge.
Since the revamped system has only been in force since the beginning of the year, athletes need to give it time to work, WADA director general David Howman said. If there are serious problems, WADA will then consider any legitimate changes.
“There are things that need to be learned. We appreciate that,” he added. “But make sure you learn all the information before you criticize it.”