Testing in Testing Times: WADA Anti-Doping Guidance for Athletes in light of COVID-19

6 April 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all areas of our lives and the sporting world is no different.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has recently issued guidance to athletes in which it acknowledges the difficulties that the current health crisis will cause, not just for athletes, but for the entire sporting community who are committed to protecting clean sport.  They acknowledge that whilst testing is vital in the fight against doping, there is an overarching need to prioritise reducing transmission of the virus and thereby limiting its global impact. Accordingly, safety measures will be put in place to protect athletes and sample collection personnel.

WADA’s guidance for athletes seeks to clarify their obligations under the anti-doping Code during this turbulent time.

The message for athletes is clear: you can still expect to be tested despite concerns about COVID-19, and the virus is highly unlikely to amount to a valid justification for refusing to provide a sample.

Key points and what you need to know as an athlete

WADA has confirmed that despite many sporting events and competitions being suspended or postponed, including the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, athletes can still expect to be tested. They do recognise however that current testing programmes will have to be adjusted and fewer anti-doping tests will be carried out in light of necessary restrictions to stem the spread of the pandemic.

The key points arising from WADA’s guidance in relation to testing are as follows:

Can I still be tested?

Yes. The advice is that some testing will still be carried out. When conducting anti-doping tests, sample collection personnel have been advised to regularly wash their hands, put on new gloves upon arrival and to remain two metres away from others. It is likely that far fewer tests will be carried out, but athletes should not expect testing to stop completely.

Can I refuse to be tested if I am worried about COVID-19?

No. Athletes are strongly encouraged to comply with testing, especially in light of the additional safety precautions outlined above.  If you experience symptoms that suggest you may have COVID-19, you should follow government guidance, including self-isolating. If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, you should inform the doping control officer of your symptoms immediately.

What happens if I refuse a test because of COVID-19 concerns?

If you refuse to be tested, or if you are not willing to provide a sample, then the normal results management process will be followed. This will provide athletes with the opportunity to justify their actions but ultimately, refusing a test could lead to the commission of an anti-doping rule violation, which could lead to a ban from sport of up to two years.

Do I still have to provide whereabouts information?

Yes. Athletes should continue to ensure their whereabouts information is updated accurately on ADAMS.

How will the reduction in testing affect clean sport?

Of course there is a risk that conducting fewer anti-doping tests may have an impact on clean sport. However, when life begins to return to normal and the frequency of testing increases, additional target tests may be carried out to try and compensate for the reduction in testing during the coming months.

The guidance makes it absolutely clear that the obligations on athletes to update their whereabouts and submit to testing remain in force. Whilst all major sporting events and competitions have been placed on hold, don’t expect testing to stop. 

About the authors

Julie Norris is a partner in the Regulatory Team. She specialises in advising in the health, professional services, legal and financial fields, advising professionals, businesses and regulators on regulatory compliance, investigations, adjudication, enforcement and prosecutions.  

Claire Parry is an associate (Barrister) in the Regulatory Team .  She has extensive experience of investigating and presenting fitness to practise cases of all levels of complexity. Her current practice involves investigating cases relating to professional misconduct, lack of competence and ill-health on behalf of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

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