Privacy is latest obstacle to drug testing

Updated: February 23, 2009, 4:19 PM ET
Associated Press

LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- After years of fighting steroids and drug cheats, the World Anti-Doping Agency is facing a new obstacle -- the right to privacy.

WADA president John Fahey begins a European tour Tuesday and will face questions about the agency's revamped "whereabouts" rule for out-of-competition testing.

The agency is confronting increasing complaints about a system that requires athletes to give three months' notice of their location for one hour each day -- seven days a week, between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. The information is registered online and can be updated by e-mail or text message.

Many athletes contend the system does not guarantee sufficient freedom from testers, not even when they're on the beach or at a club. They say the arrangement violates their right to privacy.

Fahey will meet with government ministers in Germany and Spain and several leaders of international sports federations. He'll have to defend his rules against charges they are invasive and go beyond what is needed to catch cheats.

Maybe in the future they will find a tag they can put on us like dogs have.

-- U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones

"Maybe in the future they will find a tag they can put on us like dogs have," U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones said.

"Is this the time of the inquisition, or what?" asked FIFA medical committee chairman Michel D'Hooghe, adding that soccer players cannot even get a respite during their summer holidays.

From Rafael Nadal to Serena Williams in tennis to Michael Ballack in soccer to Lindsey Vonn in skiing, it seems no one is happy.

"I mean why not just have a GPS chip in our skin and they can just figure out where we are," said Vonn, the World Cup ski leader.

In Belgium, 65 athletes have started court proceedings against the whereabouts system, citing the European Convention on Human Rights. WADA says it has taken enough legal advice to make sure the rules are within the provisions.

"Where is the middle point between what is the fight against doping and what are human rights? This is the debate," Spanish Sports Minister Jaime Lissavetzky said at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France.

At first, the issue amounted to closing loopholes to the out-of-competition rule and streamlining it across all sports and continents. Now it is spiraling into a global controversy.

In-competition controls always have been straightforward. An athlete shows up and competes at the stadium and is tested after the event.

However, as doping became more sophisticated, athletes would dope during training and make sure all traces were gone by the time of competition. So testers started checking out of competition, and some athletes made a sport of disappearing for months, only to come back at championships to win medals.

This prompted WADA and others to take stronger action. The previous rule made athletes give notice of their whereabouts five days a week. Since Jan. 1, that has been extended to seven days a week. The rule has been backed by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.

"Sports today has to pay a price for suspicion," he said. "The best way to alleviate the suspicion is to allow for out-of-competition testing."

The athletes can be punished only if they are not at a place of their choice one hour a day. Three missed tests within 18 months results in sanctions, including a possible lifelong exclusion from the Olympics.

Three years ago, British runner Christine Ohuruogu was banned 12 months for missing three out-of-competition doping tests. She came back to win a gold medal at 400 meters in the world championships and Olympics.

"We are athletes but we are also human, with human fallibilities. Sometimes things don't always go to plan," she said.

International athletes complain they live on short-notice plane flights and have to juggle schedules on a daily basis because of early elimination or sudden injury.

"You get flustered and you forget where you're supposed to be," Ohuruogu said.

WADA already has met with athletes' groups to defend the whereabouts rules, saying the complaints are often based on a lack of knowledge.

The revamped system has been in force only since the beginning of the year, and WADA director general David Howman said athletes need to give it time to work. If there are serious problems, he added, WADA will consider legitimate changes.

"There are things that need to be learned. We appreciate that," he said. "But make sure you learn all the information before you criticize it."


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press