The whereabouts system used in anti-doping was validated on Thursday in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) after Jeannie Longo and a number of other French athletes brought a case arguing that the system infringed on their freedoms.
Longo, a retired multiple world champion who was cleared of a whereabouts violation in 2011, was one of two applicants in the case, the other being a group of national sporting unions representing French footballers, basketball players, and rugby players.
Together they claimed that the whereabouts system, the fulcrum of out-of-competition drugs testing, constituted a violation of article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which covers the ‘right to respect for private and family life’.
The whereabouts system (ADAMs) was introduced under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Code in 2004 and requires athletes to file information about their location so that they may be reached by testers. With the WADA code revised and adopted by all Olympic sports in 2009, the whereabouts system was tightened and moved online, requiring athletes to keep it regularly updated and also indicate an hour-long slot each day when they are available for testing.
Longo and the others had previously appealed to the Conseil d’Etat, the supreme court in France, but saw their applications rejected, leading them to take their complaints to the ECHR. The group of unions lodged its application in 2011, while Longo did so in 2013, alleging that her inclusion in the French anti-doping agency’s target testing pool since 2008 constituted ‘a serious and repeated breach of privacy’.
The case was brought against the French state but the potential consequences extended far beyond the country’s borders. A victory for Longo et al would have heavily undermined the WADA code, triggering similar appeals elsewhere and posing a major headache to anti-doping authorities globally.
In Strasbourg on Thursday, the ECHR rejected the case, ruling unanimously that there had been no violation of Article 8.
“Taking account of the impact of the whereabouts requirement on the applicants’ private life, the Court nevertheless took the view that the public interest grounds, which made it necessary, were of particular importance and justified the restrictions imposed on their Article 8 rights,” read a summary of the verdict.
“It found that the reduction or removal of the relevant obligations would lead to an increase in the dangers of doping for the health of sports professionals and of all those who practise sports, and would be at odds with the European and international consensus on the need for unannounced testing as part of doping control.”
This is not the first time the whereabouts system has been challenged. In 2009, a group of 65 Belgian sportsmen and women cited Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights in bringing a case against the government of Flanders, the region in the north of the country.
In football, FIFA and UEFA, the global and European governing bodies, vehemently opposed the system in 2009, with FIFA president Sep Blatter reportedly likening it to a ‘witch hunt’.
WADA hails decision
WADA was understandably happy with the decision by the ECHR, hailing it as a good day for 'doping free' sport and said that out-of-competition - which are enabled by the ADAMs system, tests were one of the most powerful tools in the anti-doping arsenal.
“Today is a good one for doping-free sport. Because out-of-competition doping controls can be conducted without notice to athletes, they are one of the most powerful means of deterrence and detection of doping and are an important step in strengthening athlete and public confidence in doping-free sport," WADA director general Oliver Niggli said in a statement issued on Thursday evening.
“Accurate Whereabouts information is crucial to the success of anti-doping programs, which are designed to maintain the integrity of sport and to protect clean athletes. The only way to perform out-of-competition testing is by knowing where athletes are, and the way to make it most effective is to be able to test athletes at times when cheats are most likely to use prohibited substances or methods.”
“While the rules inevitably create some inconvenience for athletes as they must divulge a certain amount of personal information and keep it up to date, it is clear that this is entirely proportionate to the wider benefits for global sport.”