U.S. track star Christian Coleman banned from Olympics, blames Christmas shopping trip for doping violation

Henry Bushnell
·8 min read
Christian Coleman, of the United States, celebrates winning the gold medal in the men's 100m final at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Christian Coleman, of the United States, celebrates winning the gold medal in the men's 100m final at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

American sprinter Christian Coleman, the reigning world champion in the 100 meter, will miss the Tokyo Olympics due to a doping ban.

Coleman is not, however, suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. He’s been banned for a third “whereabouts failure.” And that, he claims, essentially amounted to a Christmas shopping trip.

The Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), a global track-and-field anti-doping agency, upheld Coleman’s two-year suspension on Tuesday, ruling that the 24-year-old U.S. star was not where he said he’d be during a one-hour window last December. Coleman said he was there, at his apartment, briefly, to eat takeout Chipotle. Investigators didn’t believe him, and said a Walmart receipt was proof.

Coleman said he’d been out Christmas shopping, and could have been home in five minutes if doping control officers had simply called him. Authorities said that didn’t matter.

The technicalities will cost the current fastest man in the world a shot at Olympic gold. To some, he only has himself to blame. The December “whereabouts failure” was Coleman’s fourth since June 2018, and third of 2019. In fact, he only escaped earlier punishment because of a rulebook loophole.

To others, though, the culprits are an outdated anti-doping system; an unfortunately mistimed shopping trip; and an excessive punishment that doesn’t fit Coleman’s crime.

The rules Coleman violated

Track athletes are required, at the beginning of every quarter, to file a “whereabouts” report. They identify where they are living and training, and, “for each day in the forthcoming quarter, one specific 60-minute time slot where [they] will be available at a specific location.” This enables random, out-of-competition drug testing. Doping control officers can arrive at the specified location at the specified time to collect doping samples. If the athlete is not present to provide a sample, it can constitute a missed test. Three missed tests in 12 months equals a ban.

Coleman first violated these regulations in June 2018, and again on January 16, 2019. He did not contest the January missed test. He tacked on a “filing failure” in April, which he did contest, but which was upheld. He’d said he’d be training in Lexington, Kentucky, between 2 and 5:30 p.m. on April 26. But when a doping control officer called him that day, according to investigators, Coleman said he was at a meet in Iowa. Coleman asked whether he could be tested at the meet instead. Officials said no. Coleman, minutes later, updated his whereabouts report. His failure to update it earlier constituted a second strike.

When Coleman filed his October-December whereabouts report, therefore, he knew he was one strike away from a ban. Sometime before October 1, he filed it, and said he’d be home, at his residence in Lexington, Kentucky, from 7:15-8:15 p.m. on December 9. When two doping control officers arrived around 7:15 that night, Coleman wasn’t. And that’s where the story gets messy.

How a shopping trip led to Coleman’s ban

One officer rang Coleman’s doorbell and knocked loudly upon arrival, then again every 10 minutes. Nobody answered, because Coleman was out shopping. One receipt showed a purchase at 7:13 p.m. that night. A second showed Coleman stopped at Chipotle for dinner at 7:53 p.m. A third showed that he purchased 16 items at Walmart at 8:22.

Coleman, in a virtual hearing earlier this month, claimed he had returned home between Chipotle and Walmart to eat and watch Monday Night Football. He remembered seeing the game kickoff at 8:15. The doping control officers, he concluded, must have left early and missed him.

Investigators, however, stated plainly in their Tuesday ruling: “We do not accept the athlete’s evidence.”

Their reasoning was twofold. For one, a doping control officer had taken a photo of the name plate outside Coleman’s gated community at 8:21, to confirm they’d stayed for over an hour. They would have seen Coleman enter.

And secondly, Coleman’s alibi didn’t check out. From the ruling:

The athlete purchased 16 items from the Walmart Supercenter at 8:22 p.m., therefore only seven minutes after the end of his 1-hour slot and the kickoff of the football match that he claims to have watched. Although the Walmart Center is relatively close to the athlete’s residence, it would have been simply impossible for him to purchase a Chipotle at 7:53 p.m. (the store being 5-9 minutes to his residence), drive home, park the car, go into his residence, eat the Chipotle, then watch the kickoff of the football game which only started at 8:15 p.m., and thereafter go out again in his car, drive to the store and pick up 16 items at the Walmart Supercenter so as to be able to pay for them by 8:22 p.m. And this notwithstanding the fact that, according to his version, the athlete at least when he arrived before 8:15 p.m. should have directly passed and seen the two DCOs, who also did not discover him and stated that at no time was a light turned on in the house – on a dark December evening.

Coleman’s side of the story

Coleman, investigators concluded, did in fact violate anti-doping rules. His strongest defense is that those rules are harsh. In June, Coleman posted a lengthy statement on social media, addressing the AIU’s initial decision.

“Y’all know this is wrong,” he wrote. “Something needs to change.”

“Don’t tell me I ‘missed’ a test if you sneak up on my door (parked outside the gate and walked through...there’s no record of anyone coming to my place) without my knowledge,” Coleman wrote. “Knocked while I was Christmas shopping 5 mins away at the mall and didn’t even bother to call me or attempt to reach me. I was more than ready and available for testing and if I had received a phone call I could’ve taken the drug test and carried on with my night. I was only made aware of this attempted drug test the next day.”

Coleman said he’d been contacted by phone “literally every other time I’ve been tested. Literally.” The AIU, however, on this occasion, gave new instructions. An AIU official admitted to this at the hearing, and gave his reasoning:

He gave this “no call” instruction for three reasons: (i) the athlete had in the relatively recent past missed four tests, and missed tests were always a warning sign in relation to an athlete, (ii) in the past there had been a combination of very good performances by the athlete and missed tests, and (iii) he had an impression that the athlete might have been forewarned on previous tests.

Coleman wrote in June that he thought “the attempt on December 9 was a purposeful attempt to get me to miss a test.”

But the “no call” instruction, no matter the reasoning, was considered appropriate and within the rules by the AIU. Coleman, therefore, was guilty of another missed test, and subject to a two-year suspension.

Coleman claimed he was tested two days later, and the test was clean. He wrote that he has “never and will never use performance enhancing supplements or drugs. I am willing to take a drug test EVERY single day for the rest of my career for all I care to prove my innocence.”

The AIU itself even wrote in Tuesday’s ruling: “For the avoidance of doubt, there is no suggestion that [Coleman] has ever taken any prohibited substance and we wish to make that clear.”

Coleman has one more recourse, an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. If he loses it, or doesn’t make it, he won’t be in Tokyo next summer, in his prime, with a good chance at Olympic gold.

The AIU wrote in its decision that “the consequences for athletes who are subject to three missed tests are draconian.”

“But,” it went on, “rather than learn from his experience with [the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency], the athlete’s attitude to his obligations can fairly be described as entirely careless, perhaps even reckless. Then, rather than admit his fault, he filed responses which strongly criticized authorities for their conduct, submitting through his counsel in highly tendentious terms that the authorities developed a strategy in an effort to catch him out, denied the offense, and persisted in an exculpatory version of events as to what happened on December 9, 2019, that was simply untrue.”

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