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UK anti-doping: an athlete's testing reality

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Tom Fordyce | 10:07 UK time, Friday, 1 July 2011

When I woke up on Thursday morning, groggy from the previous day's 10-hour stint of text commentary on the Roger Federer against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray-Felciano Lopez quarter-finals at Wimbledon, there was a strange man standing in my bedroom.

Even less predictably, I was rather pleased to see him.

Three weeks into my month on the UK anti-doping whereabouts system, and I still hadn't been tested. I'd specified where I would be for an hour a day, seven days a week, for three months in advance, as well as where I'd be training each day, but there had been no knock at the door, nor any UKAD car flagging me down on long bike rides into the Surrey Hills or north Essex countryside.

I'd had scares - remembering halfway to Mama Fordyce's for Sunday lunch that I'd have to change my specified location from my flat in Putney to her house, taking some strong prescription painkillers when beset with toothache in the middle of the night, without thinking to check that they might be on the banned list - but as the days went by it felt increasingly like a theoretical exercise in diary management rather than the front line in the fight against doping.

The strange man, however, was entirely real. Neither was he going away, even though I was lying in bed naked (it's been hot) and rather needed to put on some board-shorts before bowling about the house.

"I have to stay with you from now until your test is done," he explained, showing me his DCO (doping control officer) identification card with photo and number.

If I left his sight I could be taking a masking agent, preparing some clean urine - you can buy it online, should it take your fancy - or even jumping out of the bedroom window. If instead it meant that I would begin the day by treating him to an inadvertent catwalk display of the emperor's new clothes, so be it.

I was lucky he was there at all. Knackered from covering the tennis and getting up twice in the night to calm my three-month-old son, I had slept right through the sound of the doorbell. If my girlfriend hadn't heard it, or had chosen to ignore it and stay in bed rather than opening the door, the DCO would then have tried again every quarter of an hour.

Call my mobile? I had turned it off overnight for the first time in years, thoughts only of a lie-in, but the DCO could not have called it anyway. Testing cannot be done without warning if your phone alerts you first.

Had I failed to respond to the doorbell's nudges for duration of my specified hour, it would have been logged in the system as a missed test. Three of those in an 18-month period and I would be facing a two-year ban.

Lesson 1: install a loud doorbell.
Lesson 2: make sure you can hear it anywhere in the house.
Lesson 3: at all times keep a pair of shorts by the side of the bed.

These are the bottles, complete with their lids and seals, that need to be filled

These are the bottles, complete with their lids and seals, that need to be filled

The DCO leads me into the kitchen. As I glug down a pint of water (I will need to produce at least 90 millilitres of urine) we fill in the doping control form: name, nationality, team/discipline, date of birth, today's date and time and my own identification - in this case a passport, although a driver's licence would also do.

Into the bathroom. From the DCO's bag I am invited to select a clear plastic pot with a white top, plus a separate blue lid sealed in its own plastic wrapping. There are roughly 10 of each from which to choose. When I have made my random selection and put on a pair of rubber gloves, the DCO asks me to check the tamper-proof seal. Is there any way the pot could have been opened in advance? No.

Only I am allowed to touch the pot. Taking off the original lid, it is now time to fill it and take the test. The DCO must watch the entire process. If you think the performance anxiety might be a problem, imagine how it feels to be in the audience.

Off comes the wrapping around the new blue lid. On it goes to the pot. From the DCO's bag I select from one of five identical white polystyrene boxes, all sealed again with tamper-proof strips.

Inside are two glass bottles, one with a red "'A' Sample" label, the other with a blue "'B' Sample" label. While the DCO watches, I pour half the urine into one and half into the other, seal the ratchet lids and turn the two bottles upside down. My personal seal might have been broken, but these have not.

At all times it's been me doing the opening, pouring and sealing. While the DCO has supervised every inch of the process, it's my hands looking after my samples. It's my hands too that put the 'A' and 'B' samples back into their tight polystyrene case, fasten the lid and attach the barcode stickers that identify me to the system.

Does my privacy feel invaded? You'd think so. My girlfriend is banging on the bathroom door, desperate to use the toilet. I have had my genitals examined at short range by a man I have only just shaken hands with. It is early in the morning, and I would rather be asleep.

The UK anti-doping paperwork

The UK anti-doping paperwork contains no personal information

In actual fact, it all seems rather relaxed. The DCO is polite, friendly and helpful; the process is easy to understand.

Back to the kitchen. On the same form we now fill in my coach's name, the number from the sealed box and my doctor's name. There is a declaration of medication where I must write everything, prescription or otherwise, that I have taken in the last seven days, a section asking if I have a valid TUE (a therapeutic use exemption - for example, if I have asthma and require a steroidal/broncho-dilator inhaler) and a box to tick if I have had a blood transfusion in the last six months.

Then, about 40 minutes after the doorbell first rang, the polystyrene box is placed into a thick plastic courier bag, sealed, addressed to the doping control lab and tucked under the DCO's arm.

He will take it home, call the courier firm and have it picked up. There is no mention of my name, nor any of my personal details, anywhere on the package. The only identification is that mission order number and barcode.

The test is complete. Was it painful? No. An inconvenience? Only a minor one. Would it become more of an inconvenience if it was happening twice a week, every week of the year? Quite possibly.

This is the price British elite sports people must pay, not only for the doping scandals of others in the past but so us supporters and spectators can believe in their performances in the future.

Is an equal price being paid by all other athletes across the world? Not always. But more of that next week.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting article.

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting, we've all heard about the "whearabouts" system but it's nice to see it in action. Can you fail the test on medication you've been prescribed and declared?

  • Comment number 3.

    Can you clarify whether the DCO would have been allowed to ring you?

    Seeems a little odd that you could find out you are being tested by phone. As you say yourself "If I left his sight I could be taking a masking agent, preparing some clean urine"

  • Comment number 4.

    Nice blog. Is that all or is there more to come? I hope so. And you have my deepest sympathies for undergoing that intrusive test.

  • Comment number 5.

    At some point one has to ask the question whether really it's proportionate to force the vast majority of perfectly innocent athletes to suffer the indignity of having to urinate in front of a near stranger simply to preserve the "integrity" of sport.

    There has to be a better way of testing surely?

  • Comment number 6.

    guestnumber7 - just checked, and apparently the DCO could not have phoned me, for exactly the reasons you describe

    Einveldi - you would need the TUE - therapeutic use exemption certificate

  • Comment number 7.

    Its only a two year ban if you're not a well known personality. Like Rio or Ohuruogu. Its actually easier to fail if you're Kolo Toure, then your ban mostly applies during the off-season.

  • Comment number 8.

    As Tom notes at the bottom, the British athletes are tested to reduce the chances they can cheat but many athletes from around the world do not face such inconveniences.

    Mark Cavendish was tested a few days ago. He is a clean athlete (as far as we know) but he will be trying to beat cyclists from other teams that are not.

    We are aware that there is a cyclist competing who has failed tests and yet is still allowed to compete.

    Unless all nations/teams/federations are taking the same measures it is extremely undermining. Wonder how the athletes who do have to go through the testing procedures feel when cheating goes unpunished and even appears sanctioned by rival federations.

  • Comment number 9.

    "While the DCO has supervised every inch of the process"...Hahaa Tom! I know you never meant it, but a male giving a urine sample makes that line hilarious!

  • Comment number 10.

    Given your going out to lunch point, can you change your plans at relatively short notice and how do you notify them?

  • Comment number 11.

    With a check like this, its makes you wonder how people can beat the system? And having to decide between toothache and taking some painkillers!!!!! Do you agree that once an athlete HAS been found guilty producing a positive sample, they shouldn't be allowed to compete, EVER?!?

  • Comment number 12.

    Fascinating stuff, great to be kept up to date on your experiment Tom.

    @5 I actually think it is entirely proportionate to force our athletes to do this. It surely isn't that much of an embarassment to urinate in front of a stranger, anyone who has ever played team sports before would've showered in front of strangers before with a thought or hesitation.

    http://thebigblogofsport.wordpress.com/2011/07/01/the-long-road-to-paris/

  • Comment number 13.

    What a brilliant article.
    Thanks.

  • Comment number 14.

    Nice insight into the actual process

    I've always wondered why athletes don't just take the 7-8am slot and adjust their days according.

    The blood transfusion only counts for someone else's blood I think - hence the EPO being legal under a certain amount.

  • Comment number 15.

    @7 Football does not sign up to the IOC drugs code as far as I'm aware. There are supposedly equivalent codes, but there are arguments that football is taking a soft stance on drugs.

    There is an issue worldwide with drugs in certain sports in certain countries. Some employ coaches who were themselves found to be drug takers - such condoning of performance enhancement measures is very wrong. The athletes I know willingly do this because 1) they wish to be fair and 2) they never want anyone thinking of them "I wonder...." Many top sportsmen become ambassadors of the drug test regime.

    It is hard but you know, it's a bit like driving. A lot of people are casual about a bit of flouting, but once the points start adding up and a ban is on the cards, they drive very carefully. (well the sensible ones). So it is with testing, if you do mess up accidentally, the responsible atheletes don't mess up twice in 18 months, let alone 3 times. It's amazing how in control of your diary you can become!

  • Comment number 16.

    And that, despite many protests by Federer bloggers/Brit newspapers, is why Rafa Nadal is as clean as they come.

  • Comment number 17.

    This is an issue which has frustrated me for some time.
    Firstly, I completely agree that athletes are drugs tested. Sport should be a clean and fair environment. But, the main area which frustrates me is the difference between UK anti-doping systems and others in different countries. Yes, our anti-doping system is extremely rigorous and tightly regulated, but it could be seen that UK sport is trying it's best to catch out our own athletes when other countries fail to follow similarly stringent protocols.

    I think that the British Olympic Association's ruling that any positive drugs test results in a lifetime Olympic ban further deters British athletes from participating in performance enhancing drugs. This is a rule which is emulated by only one other country in the world. Surely there has to be a level playing field across all countries.

    I have experience in high level sport both in the UK and abroad. I can say that anti-doping systems in other countries are in no way as higher a standard to that of those in place in the UK. Examples of these can range from timetabled doping tests, to unsupervised testing where it may be easy to give a 'clean urine' sample. Perhaps our desire to be 'fair' and 'British' puts us at a disadvantage to other countries, but in a completely wrong and unethical way?

  • Comment number 18.

    Wow! Good Blog. Didn't realise it was that strict. Couldn't do it myself. Way too invasive on many levels.
    But can they not just do a blood test? Surely this would give more comprehensive results.

  • Comment number 19.

    18 - You need a Doctor before that can happen.........

  • Comment number 20.

    Interesting article. However, I would have thought the first thing he would have done would have been to confirm your identity! Unless famous/well known, how does the DCO know he/she is testing the correct subject?

  • Comment number 21.

    You need testing in case you been smoking gunja on the sly. Winter Olympics in Kingston, Jamaica - that's ok. Ice and snow imported from South Pole. Ja, Cool Running and groove under de sun, maan !"!

  • Comment number 22.

    Tom,
    Two tests a week sounds like a lot. In tennis, the players only receive two out-of-competition tests in a year. Half the players missed one of the two tests in 2009 (2010 data is still not out, but appears to be similar). So in three weeks you have already matched half the top tennis players for out-of-competition tests in a year.

  • Comment number 23.

    The actual test procedure (appears) solid enough.

    What isn't solid is that in a lot of sports (ie especially tennis), they have only a miniscule number of such tests each year, in some cases as low as none at all.

    As they have to miss three such tests in 18 months before they are considered to have committed a doping offence, they are basically free to dope as much as they like in offseason training - the traces for modern drugs disappear from the body in days, so in-competition testing has no chance of catching them.

    In other words: unless there are actually constant tests all year round, there is no chance of catching the cheats. Tennis is the prime example of this, with basically a non-existent doping system ...... for example, Wayne Odesnik was recently sanctioned for HGH. Was he caught by testing? Nope, Australian customs found it in his luggage.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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