Jessica Zelinka had flown to Ontario for the Olympic Heroes Parade in September when drug testers knocked on her door in Calgary to find her not home.
Her absence was considered a missed doping test, the first strike for one of Canada’s top track and field athletes.
Three strikes is an anti-doping violation, and can come with a suspension of up to two years.
Some athletes are quietly complaining that they’ve become slaves to what they call a draconian anti-doping system desperate to keep up with the cheaters, saying they have to sign away their dignity and privacy to prove they’re clean.
Few are keen to talk openly about it.
“It’s really a system that’s flawed on so many levels,” says Zelinka’s husband Nathaniel Miller, an Olympian in water polo. “It has nothing to do with athletes trying to avoid testing, but everything to do with athletes trying to just be normal human beings and have their own dignity and freedom respected.
“I don’t think the current system does that.”
Canada’s top athletes must provide a schedule of their daily whereabouts in three-month blocks to the country’s doping watchdog, the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport.
In the days following her bronze medal run at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep and husband Bronsen Schliep took a road trip to the Grand Canyon. They pitched a tent in a national park. Lopes-Schliep emailed the longitude and latitude of the campsite to her manager Kris Mychasiw, in case the drug testers needed to find her.
“The longitude and latitude, that’s hardcore to expect an athlete to do that,” Mychasiw said. “Thank God for smart phones. She sent the update in: ‘We’re in a tent, somewhere along the road, and here’s the longitude and latitude.“’ Athletes are also required to designate a specific hour each day – any time between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. – when they’re available for unannounced drug testing in their home.
“If you’re a regular employee in Canada, this entire policy and procedure is illegal,” Miller says. “You’re not allowed to do random testing in a person’s place of living, they can’t send a drug tester to your house to test you for privacy reasons. And yet, because you represent your country as an athlete, those rights go out the window.”
Athletes must notify the CCES of any scheduling changes. Zelinka forgot to do that. She argued she was caught up in the stresses of a move to Connecticut, last-minute plans to participate in the Olympic parade in Toronto, and the added demands on her schedule that come with being a mom.
Zelinka, whose daughter Anika is three, appealed the missed-test ruling. Her appeal was recently denied. Two more strikes in 18 months will be an anti-doping violation.
“It’s not like you’re trying to hide something or trying to throw them off, which of course was absurd because she was at a very public celebration of Olympic sports,” Miller said. “Her actual whereabouts were well-known to everybody, and anyone.”
The CCES was formed in the fallout from the 1988 Ben Johnson scandal. Jeremy Luke, director of the Canadian anti-doping program, says the organization is complying with the World Anti-Doping Code.
“That code outlines the length of sanctions that can be imposed on athletes, the testing protocols, and then included in that, is what we call ‘athletes whereabouts requirements,’ which is an international standard that’s implemented in Canada but also implemented around the world in other countries,” said Luke.
Athletes unhappy with the testing protocol know their point of view might not be a popular one, especially coming on the heels of revelations of widespread doping in cycling, and the downfall of Lance Armstrong.
“You’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place because if you speak out loudly against it, the immediate perception is: oh well, they’re trying to hide something,” Miller said. “Canadian athletes for the most part are strong advocates for drug-free sport, so you don’t want to be criticizing an agency that you support – even though you don’t support their methods.”