An in-depth look at the intricacies of Olympic drug testing
When the one-year Olympic countdown began in July, a critical rule kicked in for any athlete with designs on competing in London.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) follows the World Anti-Doping Agency code requiring potential Olympians to be in its out-of-competition drug-testing pool for at least one year before the Games. Exceptions can be made for out-of-nowhere Olympic qualifiers next year, but this rule encompasses every Olympic sport. That's the case even for basketball, where, say, LeBron James, who can't have any contact with Miami Heat officials during the lockout, is still responsible for drug-testing paperwork and, potentially, providing urine and blood samples under USA Basketball.
Out-of-competition drug testing is complicated, and yet a failure to understand it carries career-altering consequences. Testing positive for a banned substance isn't the only way athletes can land in trouble.
That's where Melissa Beasley comes in. She's been USA Track and Field's drug-testing guru since 2003. About 400 U.S. runners, jumpers and throwers are eligible to be tested, and she's there to help them comply with the complexities.
"I'm basically a mother hen," said Beasley, also known by her Twitter handle,
Beasley stressed the importance of a
If athletes fail to complete their whereabouts, they risk being hit with a "filing failure," which counts the same as not being present for a surprise drug test. Any combination of three filing failures or missed tests in an 18-month span can trigger a two-year suspension. Eight athletes -- out of thousands tested -- have been banned this way in the 10 years of USADA's program.
"This is how someone would [be able] to find you without you knowing about it," Beasley said.
A pool of international-level athletes specially selected by their sport's governing body -- about 60 to 75 of the best of the best for USA Track and Field -- must also provide a daily one-hour window for testing, giving a specific location for doping-control officers to track them down. If they have a change in plans, they must notify USADA via e-mail, text message or its new mobile app system.
"If I go out, and I'm too tired to even get home from like a club or a party, I'll send a message at 3 o'clock in the morning, saying, 'Hey, you know what, I'll be at my friend's house, this is the address and my testing window still is 6 a.m. to 7 a.m.,' " said U.S. sprinter Justin Gatlin, who knows he's facing more surprise tests than most athletes after his four-year doping suspension from 2006 to 2010.
The one-hour window is the crux, but a test can still be carried out at any time. Ask a veteran of the system, and odds are he or she either has a story of bizarre testing circumstances (at an airport, out on a date, in a high school classroom, etc.) or a missed test altogether.
"The baby one is probably the most outrageous one that I've heard," Beasley said.
That story belongs to world champion shot putter Christian Cantwell, who was
"It's really not random at all," USADA CEO Travis Tygart said. "I think two-thirds of our testing is targeted testing. We concentrate both our testing numbers as well as our special analysis at the high-risk sports and the high-risk athletes."
Random is simply the term that has come to describe the nature of drug testing. Because an athlete can be tested at any time under any circumstance, it creates a more random testing experience.
Cantwell has never tested positive, but he has missed an out-of-competition test. He then missed a second test because he did not update quarterly whereabouts to say he would be competing at the U.S. Indoor Championships in Boston. Cantwell won the indoor title and was tested in-competition in Boston, but on the same day a doping-control officer showed up at his house for an out-of-competition test in Missouri. Just like that, he was one strike away from suspension. That didn't sit well.
"A guy like me, who's completely clean, has nothing to hide," Cantwell said. "You can come in, look at my bank statements. You can come to my house. You can check everything -- my hair, my urine, whatever you want.
"They can still give me a ban for missed tests. It's absurd. It's disappointing. It's a lot of things. I don't have a whole lot of respect for doping-control people."
Stephanie Brown Trafton can empathize. The 2008 Olympic discus champion hasn't tested positive, but she missed a test earlier this month when a doping-control officer visited her house while she was out walking her German shorthaired pointers, Champ and Nick.
Brown Trafton fears sleeping through her early-morning one-hour testing window because her doorbell has been known to short out. (Many athletes choose 6-7 a.m. for their one-hour window because they know they'll be in the same place every day at that time, sleeping.) So she installed a second doorbell and requested that doping-control officers go around her house, knocking on windows if she doesn't answer the door. She's even offered to wear a GPS ankle bracelet, anything to help avoid a missed test, another strike that would put her on the brink of a suspension.
"I would give up freedom," Brown Trafton said. "I feel like I can't go anywhere or do anything without this fear of being caught for a missed test. And I'm not the one they're looking for, basically, because I test clean every single time."
Of the eight U.S. athletes who have been suspended for filing failures and/or missed tests, one has come from track and field. Mark Jelks, the 2009 U.S. indoor champion in the 60 meters, was suspended Aug. 30, 2010, for a combination of two filing failures and one missed test. Jelks blamed himself for being irresponsible but said he was also contemplating retirement and dealing with personal issues during the time he recorded those three strikes. He lost his shot at the 2012 Olympics but has decided to stick with the sport and be more aware of drug-testing procedures.
"I'm going to be a lot better," Jelks, 27, said. "Any situation should teach you a lesson. I've learned a few lessons. Just take care of business. And [the suspension] is teaching me patience."
Athletes can appeal missed tests, and it's been known to work. But to be excused from providing a sample altogether takes an extreme case, like that of three-time Olympic diver Troy Dumais, who was in the emergency room when a doping-control officer came calling.
"I'm blocked up with kidney stones, I'm sorry," Dumais said to the officer. "I couldn't go to the bathroom because it hurt so much. I was completely backed up."
Dumais got a reprieve, and he was tested the next day instead. He considers out-of-competition drug testing an invasion of privacy at times, but, like many of his Olympic peers, concedes it's a necessity to further clean competition.
"It's like security at the airport," Dumais said. "I'd rather do it, know that I'm safe, than not do it at all."