18 Jun 2015

Mo Farah: do two missed dope tests really prove anything?

Mo Farah missed two dope tests in the run up to 2012? It’s a big headline that does his reputation no good but does it prove anything? Not a jot.

Doping in sport, or rather anti-doping in sport, is on the high street a simple matter of good vs evil. But on the running track and in the training gym it is nuanced, to say the least.

According to the Daily Mail, Farah says he missed one of the two dope tests because he was in the shower. His sometime coach and agent Ricky Simms even apparently produced video evidence detailing the layout of his home in his support.

But what are the facts around dope testing?

Farah’s explanation certainly smacks of “dog ate my homework” but the reality is a missed dope test is in some ways akin to filing a late tax return.

It happens. In fact it happens a lot.

Several athletes have taken to Twitter today to suggest exactly that. Some have said the opposite – that there’s no excuse for missing a test – but it must be said the vast majority have sympathy with the double Olympic champion.

That’s because life is complicated. The whereabouts system requires athletes to notify the testing authorities – in advance – of an hour, and location, for each day, every single day of the year, where they know they will be.

Fair? Difficult? Practical? Whatever. For them’s the rules, as they say.

Long time in the shower

Now some more detail. The testers don’t just ring the doorbell and then swan off. They hang around for an hour. A full hour. That’s a mighty long time to be stuck in the shower, Mr Farah. What the testers won’t and don’t do is make a phone call. Reason being, according to UK Anti-Doping, that experience has shown it provides enough time for a cheat to “take an action” that might dilute evidence of doping.

So what was Mo doing the day the testers came knocking? That’s for him to explain – if he can remember. That missed test, or indeed the previous one, was said to be sometime early 2010.

Remember, this is while Mo was nowhere near the standard he is now. Good in Europe, yes, but still to transfer to Nike, the Oregon project and his controversial coach Alberto Salazar. Salazar, who’s accused of knowingly encouraging his athletes to dope. Salazar has denied all allegations, but we still await his considered response.

Human memory is fallible

I spoke to one coach familiar with Mo’s training regime during the period in question, who was categorically none the wiser. Said coach professes to have no recollection whatsoever that the soon-to-be Olympic star had missed a test. What does that mean? Very little. In fact all it really shows is that human memory is fallible. Both the coach’s – and Farah’s.

However it doesn’t do much for Mo’s image.

So let’s look at the wider testing data. In the year ending Dec 2011, UKAD had 365 athletes on the “National Registered Testing Pool”. (As an aside, it’s said that promising athletes now quite like being on this pool. It confers a kind of inverse bragging right, i.e. “Look at me, I’m now good enough – and important enough – to have the drugs testers turning up on my door unannounced. I must be really special!”)

UKAD aim to test each athlete around three times a year. So we’re looking at around 1,000 attempted “whereabouts” tests that year (in addition to mandatory in-competition tests for winners, and the separate IAAF testing programme).

The number of confirmed UKAD “whereabouts failures” in 2011 was 66. That’s a significant proportion of total tests – over 5 per cent. And a much bigger proportion relative to number of athletes in the pool – in fact it suggests as many as 20 per cent at some point during that year were not been where they should have been, when they should have been.

And it begins to explain why so many athletes have come forward to say missing a test is commonplace. And it proves nowt. Zilch. Nada.

So far, so good.

Once bitten, twice shy?

But If missing one test is relatively common, what about missing two? How many athletes let things slip twice? Once bitten, twice shy, as they say.

This is where the data should get interesting. But it doesn’t. Because the data doesn’t exist. Or rather, UKAD won’t tell us.

Why? It is, according to them, “quite a small number”. Small enough to begin to identify individual athletes. Now, it has to be a very small number indeed to begin to being to identify individual athletes. In other words, there aren’t that many of them. At all…

So how did we get here? Via a leak. Now UKAD say the information did not come from them. But neither are they denying the claims either.

So, Mo Farah. Oh, darling of the nation.

Help us out here. What’s going on? Not just what happened on the days in question. But what, exactly, do you and did you know about your new coach Alberto Salazar?

And perhaps more importantly, what of UK athletics – now British athletics?

What, exactly, did they know about Salazar when they sent Mo Farah to Oregon to be turned into a world beater?

Because anyone in athletics will tell you eyebrows have been raised by Salazar’s allegedly unconventional methods for decades. Long, long before Mo Farah was on the scene.

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