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The Christian Coleman loophole

After missing three drug tests in 12 months, Coleman has been allowed to compete at the 2019 World Championships. Here's why

American sprinter Christian Coleman missed three out-of-competition drug tests in the last 12 months, which meant he was facing a two-year ban. After several weeks of investigation and the discovery of a legal loophole, the US Anti-Doping Agency has dropped its case against Coleman, who has been allowed to compete at the upcoming World Championships, where he is a favourite to win the 100m sprint.

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Coleman is one of the most-tested athletes in track and field, and he has never tested positive for a banned substance. However, out-of-competition testing works on a “three strikes” model–a third missed test in a 12-month period is treated like a positive test, and a competition ban of two years is standard.

The case revolves around what’s known as the “whereabouts rules,” which involve an athlete having to report their location for out-of-competition drug testing during a 60-minute window (at whatever time of day the athlete chooses), each day. Obviously, they must be where they say they will be when the doping control officer shows up, to avoid being charged with a whereabouts failure. USADA charged Coleman with failing to properly file his whereabouts information after missing three tests in 12 months.


USADA’s case against Coleman hinged on two things: first, the distinction between a “filing failure” and a “missed test,” and second, the timing of these two types of “whereabouts failures.” A report in Wire Sports explains the distinction between a filing failure and a missed test: “A filing failure means the athlete did not make an ‘accurate and complete’ filing enabling him or her to be accurately located, or did not appropriately update his or her filing to make sure it was accurate.” In other words, the tester couldn’t locate the athlete because the information given was incomplete or inaccurate. A missed test, on the other hand, means the athlete wasn’t where he said he would be during the 60-minute window specified in his filing for that day.

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Though both a filing failure and a missed test constitute “whereabouts failures” resulting in a sample not being collected, the distinction is important, because of USADA’s own rules about timing. The rules state that while missed tests are considered to have happened on whatever day the athlete missed the test, filing failures are back-dated to the first day of the quarter in which they occurred.

Coleman had a filing failure on June 6, 2018, a missed test on January 16, 2019 and a filing failure on April 26, 2019. So Coleman’s first infraction (a filing failure) is considered to have happened on April 1, the first day of the second quarter of 2018–not the day it actually happened, which was June 6. Twelve months later, on March 31, 2019, he was guilty of only two infractions, not three–the June 6 filing failure and the January 16 missed test. The third infraction didn’t happen until April 26, 2019, which was outside the 12-month period between April 1, 2018 and March 31, 2019. By the time the April 26 filing failure happened, the earlier filing failure had expired. So technically, Coleman had only two strikes against him, not three.

Coleman holds the world indoor record in the 60m (6.34s). He holds a personal best of 9.79 in the 100m and 19.85 in the 200m. He is expected to face Canadians Andre De Grasse and Aaron Brown at the World Championships in Doha, which begin at the end of this month.