Every great athlete makes mistakes and has weaknesses, even the world’s fastest man.
For Christian Coleman, a favorite to win the gold medal in the 100 meters at the Olympics in Tokyo this summer, his stumble has nothing to do with how he trains or that, in a sport dominated by taller people, he is often the shortest man on the track.
Coleman’s shortcoming is far more mundane but may crush his Olympic dreams. Three times in 2019 he was not where he said he would be during the one hour each day when antidoping officers were supposed to be able to test him. He has never failed a drug test, and antidoping officials say they have no reason to suspect that he uses performance-enhancing drugs, but those three missed tests have earned him a two-year suspension from competition.
“He’s heartbroken,” his mother, Daphne, said of her son during an interview last month, the day after track and field’s antidoping authorities affirmed their two-year suspension for Coleman, which will last until May 2022. “His grandparents, his aunts and uncles and cousins, his siblings, everyone who has supported him, Christian feels terrible for what this is doing to all of them.”
Coleman, 24, has vowed to appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the top court that hears such cases. But he faces an uphill fight, even though he has earned a penalty for errors that appear to be largely clerical and careless rather than an attempt to cheat his peers.
The case and the punishment highlight the increasingly stringent stance international officials have taken with testing procedures after multiple doping scandals. But the situation also illustrates the still uneven testing landscape and treatment of athletes in different countries.
Antidoping officials acknowledge that the testing process is to an extent unfair to athletes who live in countries where there is a robust domestic program, such as Britain, Norway, Germany, Canada, and the United States. Coleman was tested so many times in 2019 that Charles Hollander, the leader of the tribunal that handed down the suspension, wrote in the decision: “For the avoidance of doubt, there is no suggestion that the athlete has ever taken any prohibited substance, and we wish to make that clear at the outset.”
Coleman missed three tests last year, but officials still tested him 13 times, more than many elite runners from developing nations, whose national antidoping programs have been troubled for years, or Russia, where the antidoping agency conspired to help athletes cheat. A spokesman for the unit, Aditya Kumar, said the organization focuses its testing on countries “where if we don’t do it, no one will.” However, there is some redundancy and it was a test administered by the integrity unit that led to Coleman’s third strike last December.
During a hearing, Coleman’s lawyer argued that he had been unfairly targeted. Following the decision, Emanuel K. Hudson, his manager, called the ruling “unfortunate” and vowed to appeal. Coleman declined to comment for this article. His father, Seth Coleman, said his son would never seek to gain an advantage illegally.
“Christian’s whole philosophy has always been, my training against your training, my talent against your talent,” he said.
For a decade, one man, the world-record holder Usain Bolt, dominated sprinting as no one had before.
Bolt is a towering 6-foot-6. Coleman, who is just 5-foot-9, is one of the more unlikely candidates to succeed him as the world’s fastest man.
The son of an educator and a media relations manager for Atlanta’s public school system, Coleman played football and ran track at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School in Fayetteville, Ga. Coaches and teachers described him as a quiet, solid student and a standout teammate.
“This is the guy who was the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave, and he always ended the day saying ‘Thank you, coach,’” said Mark Tolcher, Coleman’s high school track coach.
A star defensive back and wide receiver, Coleman initially considered playing football at Valparaiso in Indiana, but then Tennessee offered him a track scholarship, which effectively ended his football career. Coleman made the United States Olympic team in 2016. He won national titles in the 100 and 200 meters as a junior in 2017 and turned professional.
Beth Alford-Sullivan, the director of track and field at Tennessee, called Coleman a “model student athlete. “
“The Christian Coleman we all know does things the right way — from how he trains, to how he competes, to how he treats others,” Alford-Sullivan said.
As it usually does, Coleman’s testing regimen increased when he began to compete internationally at the senior level. The rules require athletes, at the beginning of each quarter, to submit to antidoping officials a schedule of where they plan to be each day for the next three months. Athletes can update their files as their plans change, but they must specify one hour each day when they will be at a certain location, sometime within the window between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. local time.
If a doping control officer shows up during that hour to collect a urine or blood sample and the athlete is not there, it counts as a missed test. Officers must make a “reasonable attempt” to locate the athlete during that hour, though a phone call is not mandatory. If the officer shows up at another time but discovers the athlete is not in the area, the athlete is cited for a filing failure, which counts the same as a missed test. Accumulate three missed tests or filing failures within 12 months and the rules call for a suspension as long as two-years.
Coleman initially had a filing failure in June 2018, and then missed a test in January of 2019.
Then, just after noon on April 26, 2019, a doping control officer called Coleman from outside the athlete’s home in Lexington, Ky. Coleman was in Iowa watching the Drake Relays, a top collegiate meet. His whereabouts filing said he was supposed to be at home that day.
Coleman asked if there was anyone at the track meet who could collect a sample from him. The officer told him that was not allowed.
That seemed like it might be his third violation within 12 months, but the initial filing failure in June 2018 was backdated to April 1, giving Coleman another chance.
After he won gold at the world championships, doping officials warned Coleman that he was likely to face even more testing. His mother said she would occasionally remind him to make sure he was keeping his whereabouts up-to-date.
Last Dec. 9, two doping control officers arrived at Coleman’s home in a gated community in Lexington at 7:09 p.m. Coleman had said he would be home from 7:15 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. Instead of calling Coleman’s home on the security keypad, which Coleman contends he would have heard, they walked through an open gate and knocked on his door.
Coleman did not answer. The officers waited for an hour and left.
During a hearing in October, Coleman testified that he was out Christmas shopping during part of the hour when he was supposed to be home, even though he should have been there the whole hour. He also said he bought a takeout dinner, then came home to watch the start of an N.F.L. game that began at 8:15, saw no officers, then went out to do more shopping.
Coleman said he was so close to his home during the hour that if a doping control officer called he could have gotten home within five minutes, even though that is not how the process works.
Officials with the integrity unit countered that they did not see him entering or leaving and it would have been impossible for him to have come home in time to take the test, based on receipts that showed that he was still shopping at the time.
Raphael Roux, the director of out of competition testing for the integrity unit, testified that he told officers not to call Coleman because of Coleman’s combination of violations and outstanding performances, which raised suspicions, and because he “had an impression” that Coleman might have been tipped off ahead of previous tests. The ruling did not cite any evidence to support that.
Kumar, the integrity unit spokesman, said officers only call athletes in a “limited set of circumstances.”
Coleman’s supporters, though, still feel the testing regimen was excessive for somebody whose results have come back clean.
Even with his son’s Olympic Games in jeopardy, Seth Coleman said the ruling has not caused a sprinter who has long seen naysayers around every corner to miss a beat in training.
“Christian doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder, it’s more like a boulder, or a glacier,” Seth Coleman said. “This is just going to make him train twice as hard.”