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Whereabouts: What's the inside verdict?

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Tom Fordyce | 11:56 UK time, Thursday, 7 July 2011

A month into my experiment of living under the UK Anti-Doping whereabouts system, I've learned many things - that athletes need to install very loud doorbells, that trips to your Mum's for Sunday lunch can lead to missed tests and that urinating in front of a complete stranger isn't quite as hard as you think it might be.

On Tuesday, I told the tale of it all on a special edition of 5live Sport's London Calling, alongside some key individuals from inside the system - those who run it, those who live it on a daily basis as professional athletes and those who feel it is seriously flawed.

Former Great Britain swimmer Karen Pickering was once a multiple World and Commonwealth medallist. She's now chair of the British Athletes' Commission, the body that represents the interests of elite Olympians in the UK, and has grave concerns about what her members are being asked to do.

"I've issues with the whereabouts system from the beginning, because of so many athletes being caught out," she says.

"You were finding that athletes were being caught for making a mistake with the system, rather than cheating, and I think that's a flaw in the system. I just question how much of a deterrent it is for the athletes who are going to cheat.

"I'm uncomfortable with the fact that so many athletes have got strikes against their names because they didn't fill the forms in properly or were not where they thought they would be. I would hate to see an athlete see their career ruined for being unorganised."

Dwain Chambers

Chambers was banned for two years after being found guilty of taking an anabolic steroid. Photo: Getty

Sprinter Emily Freeman is as conscientious an athlete as there is; in her spare time she volunteers on UKAD's athlete committee.

But despite being organised enough to even log her whereabouts on the biggest day of her life ("I wrote IT'S MY WEDDING on the form, so they couldn't miss it"), she recently found herself enduring her worst nightmare: a missed test.

"I've been struggling with an injury for the last couple of months, so I've been here, there and everywhere getting treatment," she says.

"It was one of those days when I made a last-minute decision to stay at my training base in Loughborough, but I had my hour set at my home in Sheffield.

"I woke up to 40 missed calls from my husband telling me the drug testers had been to my house. It felt terrible, especially in the 18 months leading up to the Olympics.

"I've never missed a test before, but this was just scary - I felt quite teary, and like I'd let myself down, and everyone down. You feel like people are going to be suspicious, even though you've done nothing wrong."

Is the system too "draconian", as Andy Murray has claimed, or have the effect - as Rafa Nadal says - of making an innocent athlete "feel like a criminal"?

"I think the balance is about right. Yes it is arduous, yes it is invasive, but I would argue it's proportionate to the threat of doping," says Andy Parkinson, UKAD's chief executive.

"The system we have at the moment seems to me to be the best compromise between asking athletes where they're going to be 24 hours a day, to us never knowing where they're going to be and so having to take pot luck about finding people."

UKAD doesn't like to say how many out-of-competition tests an athlete is likely to receive each year, saying it would undermine the unpredictability of the programme. But, in track and field alone, there were 307 in-competition and 433 out-of-competition tests in 2010 - a clear indication of where UKAD believe the anti-doping war is best fought.

"It's a system we have to have in place, because if you're going to take something to improve your performance you're going to do it out of competition," says Parkinson. "We have to have a system that allows us to know where athletes are going to be."

Over the month that I've been on Adams (the Anti-Doping Administration and Management system) I've been impressed by how easy it is to update your whereabouts information.

While the Adams online programme is a little antiquated and sometimes tricky to find your way around, the text service - realise you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, text a number with your new details, receive an instant return message confirming the change - works beautifully.

"I do think they've made big strides forward in making sure athletes are able to correct their whereabouts as easily as possible," says Pickering.

"What I'm questioning is whether you need an athlete to say where they're going to be, or whether you just do out of competition testing.

"I want a clean sport all the way. Out of competition testing is absolutely vital. But is filling out a whereabouts form the way forward? We educate our athletes as much as possible to say, this is how it is, you cannot afford to fall foul of it.

"When I first did it we had to fill in a paper form by hand and then post it off, so we've come a long way. But I'm not sure that relying on this system is the best way to catch those who cheat."

Are the disorganised and naive more likely to get caught out rather than the cheats?
"We're very aware of that, which is why we pay an awful lot of attention to the educational support we offer athletes," says Parkinson.

"We understand that the interface is a little clunky, and we've been working hard with Wada (World Anti-Doping Agency) on a new, improved version which will hopefully be ready by the end of the year.

"We understand that it's hard for athletes, and that there should be a better way of doing it - but at the moment we haven't come up with one.

"Our systems have improved continuously over the past few years; we now have links with serious organised crime-fighting agencies, we have links with Interpol. We believe we have to track upstream."

UKAD's out-of-competition testing strategy is not entirely random. 36% of its drugs tests last year were targeted - aimed at specific athletes whose profile has aroused interest.
Is it proving effective?

Are there fewer drugs cheats in British Olympic sport than there were before the current system came in at the start of 2009?

"It is working," believes Parkinson. "We've got proof in terms of the statistics testing positive in the UK, and we've got anecdotal proof from athletes about the deterrent effect. To me that's the most important thing.

"Our job is not about catching cheats; our job is about preventing people from cheating. It would be harder for Dwain Chambers to cheat now like he did in 2003.

"Everything we do is about finding the balance between protecting the rights of the clean athletes, and making it harder for the cheats to cheat. We'll never get the balance completely right, but we're almost there, and we have to keep finessing it."


  • Comment number 1.

    Great blog Tom. Really informative. Just shows that excelling in your sport is not all that is required. So much more to being a sportsperson than just train and compete.

  • Comment number 2.

    I listened to the programme on Tuesday Tom and was quite surprised at Karen Pickering's views - she states the need for out of competition testing but doesn't see the need for those testers to know where the athletes will be. How can out of competition testing be effective and efficient if testers have to gamble on an athlete being somewhere whenever they want to test them?

    As for the organisation of athletes, you mentioned yourself that it was difficult to begin with but became easier as you got used to the system and knowing that you have to plan ahead. I think the 60 second notification is brilliant (although as you highlighted there should be more protection around this), surely it doesn't take much to set an alert on your phone for a certain time before your designated hour. If you're not where you should be and can't get there then you have ample time to notify the authorities and correct things. I appreciate that the odd mishap may occur but you have to be seriously disorganised for those to occur on three occasions where you are to be tested in an 18 month period.

  • Comment number 3.

    Interesting stuff. For the first time in years I'm not watching the Tour de France because I've grown sick and tired of all the drug scandals, the Contador situation gives me a horrible feeling in the depth of my stomach. He got caught, yet he keeps his title and is defending this year having won the Giro in Italy. I think of how many hours I've spent watching the race, the money I've spent to be at the roadside, the emotional investment of those close finishes. The amazing moment when Rasmussen battled Contador on the mountain side. When Armstrong battled Ulrich and Vinokourov. When Landis destroyed the field to claim victory when all looked lost. All amazing moments, but many of them likely drug-enhanced and dishonest. After Contador I'm finished. I'm disillutioned to the core.

    Athletics and any sport decided by endurance or power has to answer the same questions.

    The system does sound unnecessarily complicated, I'm the kind of free spirit who would find it frustratingly restrictive, but as fans we need to know these athletes are clean, and any step towards that is a step worth taking.

  • Comment number 4.

    This system is absolutely ridiculous. The need for doping testing is real but this approach crosses the line over to infringing people's basic rights. There is no need for anyone to know where you are going to be at all times. This approach will not stop cheaters from cheating and on the subject of cheaters, they will always find ways to be one step ahead of the system. This approach only disturbs and violates those who are innocent. All anti-doping systems are anyway are systems through which those who get away with using performance enhancing drugs and those who are caught for show can be controlled and regulated for the gain of the sport by those in charge of it.

  • Comment number 5.

    I think the system is a great idea, even if it seems a little strict, but what is the point of having all these checks when 4 Brazilian swimmers don't get banned when testing positive and we as a nation don't have the guts to tell the IOC that we want our rules implemented for the Olympics when they're bing held in our country.

    The Olympics should be drug free and this includes ANYONE already caught cheating, regardless of any 'ban' they may have served.

  • Comment number 6.

    UKAD should distribute smartphones/pdas to all the athletes with their access set to a joint electronic calendar system. That way when they choose to change their schedule they can update their calendar and the drug-testers know exactly where they are and can meet them there. 24 hour notice should be enough for both parties, maybe even 12 hours.

    In my company we all carry blackberries so that we can handle out of hours calls. I think this solution should help.

  • Comment number 7.

    legalise all performance-enhancing drugs now. create a level playing-field for all.
    let's see how far an individual can progress under optimum conditions.

  • Comment number 8.

    I think there is one point being missed here. Many of the athletes caught by this system are professional athletes, ie, competing in Sport within its rules and regulations is their job. The financial rewards for being a top level athlete can be huge - look at Rafa Nadal as a case in point. Having a clean image is important to sponsors. Lawyers, doctors, police officers teachers all have complex professional rules and requirements and all have skills where time management and planning is part of day to day life. Given that most athletes express a view on wishing to compete in a clean environment, surely they just have to accept the testing as part of their workplace and the organisation required as another facet of their job? They can be very disciplined as to training and diet, after all.

  • Comment number 9.

    This is pretty interesting and shows that Athletics, like other sports, is taking things seriously. The real problem, though, is not trying to pin down the athletes, but the tests themselves.
    Just before the last Olympic Games, there was an excellent programme on Radio 4 called Something in the Blood. On hearing it, I changed my view that Dwain Chambers should not represent Great Britain: though he has freely admitted he cheated (which is why I held that he should not represent GB) the programme made it very clear that he was essentially unlucky to be caught. In the words of a Danish medical expert with a particular interest in sports medicine, "You have to be smart not to be caught, but not that smart." This new system may mean you now have to be smarter, but the real worry was the testing itself.
    The Danish medical expert mentioned conducted a study in which he sent samples of urine from volunteers who had been given quite high doses of performance-enhancing drugs to 20 or 30 labs, all of them used by WADA. Half of them siad there were no problems with the samples. He explained that sometimes the tests were not conducted properly, sometimes interpreting the results was difficult or the testers incompetent. He also said that when they tested the control group in their lab in Denmark, the levels were all but untraceable if they were tested 24 - 48 hours after taking a dose but that athletes could still enjoy the benefits in terms of increased performance for weeks. In his opinion, an awful lot of athletes take banned substances and he was particularly certain that those in endurance sports (cycling for example) are taking them as a matter of course. Not everyone will be naturally, but this man was pretty adamant.

    Knowing where athletes are every second of their lives will not solve these problems.

  • Comment number 10.

    "legalise all performance-enhancing drugs now. create a level playing-field for all.
    let's see how far an individual can progress under optimum conditions."

    1. It could only lead to a "level playing-field for all" if all athletes, regardless of how poor they are, get the same drugs, do you think that those living in Sudan, Albania or Vietnam would get the same access to the 'best' drugs as those from America, Britain, Germany etc. ?
    2. When anything goes, morals go just as quickly, allowing and condoning drug use would inevitably lead to people wanting the 'best' drugs now, proper safety testing would disappear and people damaged by the side effects would not only increase in numbers, but they'd probably be left high and dry with no recourse available to them.

  • Comment number 11.

    @7 hmmmmm.... weird

    @6 Athletes are not employees. They choose to compete in events which have rules, if they don't want to abide by the rules, don't compete. A simple Smartphone App would do the trick - no need to distribute hardware which needs to be maintained and paid for.

    @5 completely agree - rules need to be applied universally or they risk becoming redundant. If a local organising body does not apply the rules in the specified way, all athletes from that region/country should be banned from international competition.

    It is possible for mobile operators to have a reasonable idea as to the location of your mobile phone by knowing which cell you are attached to. Would it not be useful if one of these operators offered a phone service to athletes (in return for some form of sponsorship) which would provide location information? This information could be mapped against a list of addresses that the testers could access to determine where you are. All the athlete needs to do is take their phone and keep it on and charged. (I know this isn't perfect but it could be refined to become a useful way of doing testing without the ADAM system).

  • Comment number 12.

    Spoken like true armchair critics.

    Most athletes under this system do not make much money, and I doubt you've even heard of 90% of British athletes.

  • Comment number 13.

    "Our job is not about catching cheats; our job is about preventing people from cheating. It would be harder for Dwain Chambers to cheat now like he did in 2003."

    This is pure propaganda. The failure to find more cheats by introducing this system is damning, yet they congratulate themselves for it! The only people they are "catching" are athletes such as Karen Pickering, who find their schedule thrown into chaos for reasons outside their control. The cheats, meanwhile, continue to prosper.

    And as regards Dwain Chambers, he had no fear of drugs tests; according to his own account, he took many tests while he was doping, safe in the knowledge that his drugs were undetectable. How exactly would the whereabouts system have prevented that?

    Having said that, I am in favour of the whereabouts system, as long as those administrating it do all in their power to ensure that athletes falling foul of it are dishonest, rather than disorganised. I am glad to see the system has improved since its inception, but I fail to see how draconian action against careless, innocent athletes prevents doping by careful, cynical cheats.

  • Comment number 14.

    Let's just microchip every athlete in the world. Easier to keep track of, and to hell with their rights! [sarcasm=off]

  • Comment number 15.

    Maybe it is just me but I don't really care if atheletes use drugs or not. I think that most people will have suspicion no matter what measures are taken, so why bother trying to elminate it? Just say you can all take drugs and then the best athelete will still be the winner as they will all be on drugs. At least then we'll know the playing field is level.

    I know that sounds like a strange argument but what else is left? As the testing gets better the drugs just get more advanced. It is an endless battle and sport will ultimately be undermined by suspicion. At least if drugs are legal and monitored, they can be properly tested and we won't have 100m finals where 6 of the 9 runners are under suspicion (and thus the result means nothing) and cyclists dropping dead at 35 years old because they took uncontrolled and untested substances.

    Better to level the playing field, save the cash, eliminate suspicion and protect atheletes health by helping to create safe performance-enhancing drugs than just carry on this charade.

  • Comment number 16.

    Yes, yes, yes... i meant 8 runners.

  • Comment number 17.

    and one more thing, this system seems to take away civil liberties and place pressure on atheletes. Just a thought but would an athelete who is in the closet and chooses to legally visit adult movie theatres not feel embarrassed and pressured about reporting that to the doping controllers. Extreme example, I know, but I'm sure plenty of people would not appreciate someone knowing exactly what they were doing, where they were doing it and who they were doing it with. Especially in an age where people like the News Of The World are interested in people's private lives so much. Seems that atheletes are subjected to a pretty severe infringement of their civil liberties and their right to move freely when the rest of us are not.

  • Comment number 18.

    one of my best friends is a goalkeeper for GB hockey who have a cut-back doping policy as no-one has failed a test for 5 years...basically they only have to declare an hour a day that they are available for (so most simply list their training times when they know they have to be at Bisham Abbey, or early in the morning when they'll definitely be in bed) and they don't find the system any bother at all.

    personally i think this system should be extended to all athletes; it means they are available for testing every day of the year, but allows them to select the time to best suit them.

  • Comment number 19.


    Most interesting.

    My interest is football, which gets lumped into this anti-doping hoohah, because it's a high-profile sport & not because there are even a modicum of failed tests.

    In fact, apart from Paddy Kenny's cough/cold medication & Toure's diet pills, it's hard to recall ANY tests that detected performance-enhancing drugs/substances, rather than a very occasional use of recreational drugs. So do we need this approach in football, or anywhere else?

    Cycling, athletics per se & maybe, just maybe, tennis, perhaps. But, even then, are there enough postive tests to make it necessary there?

    I do always wonder if this anti-drugs stuff is just another blasted growth industry like stress-counselling? ie One we don't really need but can't be bothered to tell where to go!

  • Comment number 20.

    Er, anybody ever heard of GPS tracking? You can link your phone to facebook and twitter and be located anywhere on the planet, including Tesco's. Would save an awful lot of admin.

  • Comment number 21.

    Personally the only thing I see wrong with this Whereabouts system is the fact that the UK is the only nation that has such a thing. And that while we throw lifetime Olympic bans at any athlete who takes drugs, all of the other nations just tell their athletes to take a break.

    This is what stops sport being a level playing field.

    Not draconian drug testing rules in one nation, but a complete lack of rules in all of the others.

    That being said, I would like to ask Tom if he feels, having spent a month operating under the Whereabouts system, that UK Athletics were right to allow Christine Ohroguru (pardon the spelling) to compete again having missed 3 tests in 18 months, while at the same time banning Dwain Chambers from competing at the Olympics because he failed a test.

    Especially in lieu of the fact that three missed tests is supposed to carry the same punishment as one failed test.

    And the fact that there were only 740 tests IN TOTAL last year, barely 2 per day, which encompassed every single athlete in the nation, surely means that if you are doping you are probably going to get away with it anyway. How many elite athletes do we have in the UK? A lot more than 740 I would guess when you take all of the different sports such as swimming, cycling, rowing, wrestling, diving, running, shot-put, and tons more that I can't think of right now into account....

    The fact that over a third of all tests are targeted at specific individuals makes it clear that, when it really matters, just like all the other countries, if your face fits the testers will turn a blind eye to you doping

  • Comment number 22.

    United Dreamer - most athletes have smartphones already. The problem is more that the current system doesn't have an app that allows you to update your details - although you do have phone numbers, text numbers and the online site if you can access it through your phone's web browser.

    Caludrup - it's that "emotional investment" in sport that makes it work, isn't it?

    Evan Byrne = I'll have to dig that programme out. Sounds really interesting.

    thegreatape - in terms of allowing sportsmen to use anything they like, what about the health issues? Do we really want to have athletes who are supposedly in peak human condition dropping dead in their 30s?

    fosterplc - I raised the GPS tracking idea on Tuesday's show. The consensus was that it would be too Orwellian letting a stranger know where you were all the time through what is a form of electronic tagging.

    SpawnMeister666 - those 740 tests last year were in track and field only. There were thousands of others across all sports. And I genuinely don't think testers "turn a blind eye" to anyone - the targeting testing is quite the opposite.

  • Comment number 23.

    Does this mean you are done with the program now? If so then I would say that 1 month doesn't really qualify anyone to make a real judgement on a system, more just a first impression. I hope you stick with it and report back in maybe 6 months time how it has effected your life overall, I'd also like someone who has kids to try it because I'm told it gets 10x harder when they are school age, especially if you are an amateur.

  • Comment number 24.

    @Tom - Yup, I guess that's why it's addictive, and I guess that's why it's great to write about. But how hollow Carl Lewis's '88 100m gold must feel, Inter's Calciopoli titles, Oscar Perreiro's TdF win. Sport gives such highs and lows and drama, but when reality of those is taken away it feels like wasted energy, a loss of some kind.

    That's why the testing is worth it.

  • Comment number 25.

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

  • Comment number 26.

    This system is all well and good but athletics will remain under a shadow until similar systems are in place around the world. I will happily bet my annual salary that the athletics events at London 2012 will once more produce a fair share of supposedly "rank outsiders" winning gold medals, who then immediately return once more to obscurity as they don't compete on the regular IAF circuit where competition drug testing takes place. And they will all come from nations who have nothing in place like the regime described here.

  • Comment number 27.

    #7 "legalise all performance-enhancing drugs now. create a level playing-field for all.
    let's see how far an individual can progress under optimum conditions."

    Do you really want a situation again where totalitarian countries basically destroy their top athletes by forcing them to take drugs? It's bad enough now when countries like China take promising children from their families and put them through what is already a fairly brutal regime, but imagine if they were then free to drug them up to the eyeballs as well, and all because of some misguided political belief that being good at sport somehow justifies your politics. And don't forget that the drugs would have to be legalised and become available to all, and if it's ok for those at the top then it must be ok for those at the bottom as well. Do you really want a situation where it's the norm for promising teenagers to be pumping themselves full of drugs, or where club rugby players, Sunday league footballers and village cricketers are are all taking steroids because it's the norm? I think we have quite enough thugs already without having thousands of youngsters also suffering from roid-rage.

  • Comment number 28.

    The thing I think the whereabouts programme doesn't take into account is the completely different lifestyles of different sports. Athletes often train in the same place at the same time for months, having the occasional meeting, but have a well established routine. Footballers, similarly, are tied down to training grounds, matches etc. Tennis players, on the other hand, are all over the world for the majority of the year. They don't know how long they will be there, not being able to guarantee how many matches they will win, whether they will get an injury or anything else. I don't think it's a coincidence that some of the most vehement protests against the system come from tennis players, and if I was woken up at 6am, when I had just the night before got home from the other side of the world and had jetlag (like happened to Murray), I wouldn't be too thrilled either.

    Another thing with the tennis system which is stupid is that you only have to provide your whereabouts if you are in the top 50 in the world. What the difference is between no. 50 and no. 51 is beyond me. Players have got into trouble when they have moved into the top 50 and not known what was required of them (see Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium as an example), and have missed tests. As far as I'm concerned, it's as legitimate to test no. 325 as it is no. 3. You test one, you test them all.

    Many people say it is invasive. I don't think anybody has the right to know where someone is every day of every year. Surely there is a better way to run this system.

  • Comment number 29.

    I think we can all agree that drugs are wrong in sport and will remain wrong - the real "doping" scandal certainly at IOC level is the fact that the "Big 6-7" worl athletic associations can afford to spend the budget of probably the bottom 100-150 combined countries on hi-tech kit that in effect means no one with said kit has any chance of winning at all - just look at the furore over the swimsuits that pretty much meant the only thing likely to beat someone wearing on was a dolphin. Everything is sports at the Olympics should be a level playing field given what the Olympics represents.


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