Doping Control Officers: Whereabouts and Why

With all the hush-hush around anti-doping I wasn’t sure how to address him. “Just call me Keith. There are quite a few DCOs called Keith. I went to an event where we were all called Keith…” I’m in the new offices of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) for a chaperoned interview with a Doping Control Officer (DCO).


It’s in the same building as the Office of Fair Trading and the room is as sterile as it gets. There’s a window, but the view is a concrete jungle. The interview has been agreed on the condition that it’s done in a controlled environment. Lucky I’m not submitted to a drug test, because I’ve been pumping my asthma inhaler to the max – the only way I can deal with wall-to-wall carpet.


I’m meeting a second ‘Keith’ over an orange juice in a pub, a couple of hours train journey from London. I had a third specimen lined up, but UKAD advised him not to talk to me and told me so, which was… awkward. Surely a top DCO knows what’s sensitive and what isn’t? Needless to say, when Keith 2 accepted an anonymous interview, I omitted informing UKAD. After all, this was between consenting adults.


Anti-doping officers are often depicted as dark figures looming in the background, in cahoots with the trolls and threatening to spoil the party. At the same time, there is a comically absurd dimension to testing. ‘Whereabouts’ is definitely up there with my favourite desert island words. It’s so open-ended, suggestive and full of story potential. Just think of Rio Ferdinand, or Michael Rasmussen, who was supposed to train in Mexico but was spotted in the Dolomites, allegedly because he was having an affair. Picture that. And let’s not ask why Mexico… Not now. Surely, not all testing is a game of hide and seek.

Keith 1 and 2 are both chatty and charming with a boyish spark. Not the stereotypical doping hunters often implied in the press, just two passionate guys who want to give something back. They got into anti-doping work in different ways. Keith 1 used to do orienteering and run marathons. One year he got injured and couldn’t participate, so he helped in the finish area instead. After that he kept coming back, until UK Sport – predecessor of UKAD – recruited him nearly ten years ago. Keith 2 came from cycling and was in one of the first batches handpicked by UK Sport a couple of decades ago.


“We learnt on the job,” says Keith 1. “Chaperoning is the hardest part, because you’re the first point of contact. You’ve got to notify the athletes, sign them up and bring them to the test. Of course, just after a race they’re often in a state of anxiety, elation or dejection, so that’s something you have to learn to deal with.”


In out of competition testing, the DCO usually visits a home or training location. Athletes in the UKAD Registered Testing Pool (450-500 athletes in the UK) have to provide an hour when they can be found every day, as well as their training programme and overnight residence. At competitions, DCOs can supervise the whole testing procedure while chaperones only accompany athletes to the testing facility. The samples should be taken as quickly as possible, but allowances are made for awards ceremonies, media commitments and other necessities. Control officers are always of the same sex as the athlete.


It can be quite a challenge going unnoticed as a DCO. Keith 1: “It’s not easy when you’re walking through the mixed zone dodging cameras. Having a giant clipboard doesn’t help either, but the real bummer is when you get an athlete shouting ‘Oi, I’ve got a piss test! You’ve got nowhere to hide’.”


Depending on the location, DCOs might have to walk hundreds of metres to reach the control station and with top athletes, there are always people asking for autographs or desperate to have a photo taken with their hero: “When that happens I step aside for the pic,” says Keith 1 “but only if I judge it’s okay and I can keep an eye on the athlete all the time while preserving his dignity. Ultimately it’s about maintaining a safe chain of custody.”


For a standard urine sample, the test is managed by the DCO. If it’s a blood test, a Blood Collection Officer – a phlebotomist – will also be present. Speaking of BCOs, Keith 2 once had a guy who went all shifty when he heard there was a blood test: “First he asks me if he can do a warm-down. Fine. Get some warm clothing? Alright then. Just need to get something from the car? I’m starting to wonder… What’s he playing at? Why is he dragging his feet? Something’s not right. In the end I tell him we have to go. When we get there, he peers nervously into the control room. ‘Thank goodness’, he says, suddenly relaxing. ‘I thought it was that BCO again – does my head in with his talking’.” Suspicious behaviour isn’t always what it seems.


DCOs have to learn to observe and distinguish dodgy behaviour from personal context. I ask what’s considered suspicious. Keith 1: “Tampering with equipment; being deliberately clumsy; dropping things in the toilet; being unnecessarily agitated.” Both athlete and DCO write down all their observations and comments on the Doping Control form.


The form is crucial: “Any suspicious behaviour needs to be on it, in case there’s a problem down the line,” notes Keith 1. “Is the athlete slow to open the door? Is the engine warm? Blinds open? Lights? Sounds? Mail sticking out of the letterbox? Registration plates? Everything has to be written down in a report. It’s equally important that the athlete reports his experience.”


Keith 2 has had cases when somebody was in the house who shouldn’t be: “Clearly it wasn’t the same woman as in the wedding photo. None of my business, but it does affect behaviour when something like that is going on. Don’t think I’ve ever had any athlete put that on the form though – ‘Girlfriend out, was shagging my neighbour, feeling a bit uneasy’.”


Whereabouts can be changed until one minute before the given time slot. Does that mean someone could switch location on their smart phone when they hear a car arriving? “They would need a damn good explanation,” counters Keith 2. “Usually an emergency,” adds Keith 1.


So it’s all pretty straightforward? Keith 1: “Nothing is clear-cut when you wake someone up at 6am to watch them piss. When they groan, I tell them ‘you chose the time’. Still, no one likes hearing a knock on the door at the crack of dawn. In the end most of them enjoy having a chat with you. I’m not good at hanging around though. Where I live you want to beat the M25.”


“A 6am slot demands a bit of prep,” continues Keith 1. “You’ll have at least a half-hour drive. I usually get up at 4am, because you’ve got to allow for finding the location. If it’s a nice house with streetlights and a parking space, it’s easy. But often you’re down farm tracks, schlepping through muddy fields with a torch, trying to find houses that don’t have numbers, bells that don’t work.” That’s when the orienteering background comes into its own.


He gives himself 20 minutes in the morning to turn on the laptop, have a shower and cup of tea. The last thing he does before driving off is to check that the athlete’s whereabouts haven’t changed since the previous night: “I get everything ready the night before, pack the equipment, lay out the clothes, so I don’t have to worry.” He stops himself and laughs – “I sound like a girl…”


When Keith 1 started out there wasn’t any real training for chaperones: “You learned on the job. It wasn’t just the marathon. I also chaperoned at a 4-day World Cup orienteering competition in Surrey. Today UKAD has workshops with trainers talking through procedures and scenarios. They’ll do actual tests with the trainer observing before you’re let loose.”


Keith 1 had done about 18 months of chaperoning before being invited to become a DCO: “This was back in 2006. We had three training events with officials supervising me over three jobs. I trained to do out of competition testing just before Beijing and became a lead DCO about a year before the London Games, so I can be in charge of a team going to do a test.”


His first out of competition test was a 6am job in a students’ hall of residence: “Funnily enough, I spoke to the guy last week. On the day it was a real challenge, because it was like a big maze and I had no clue where his block was. I had to go to the university reception desk and get the janitors on side. You have to tell people why you are there, but the athlete mustn’t know. You can’t ring their mobile – that would be advanced notice. So I told the janitor he needed to take me to so-and-so. That would have been 2008, now the athlete is competing at Olympic level. I said to him just last week, ‘You were my first’. Turns out I was his first too.”


Keith 2 remembers once being given an address that didn’t even seem to exist: “I looked everywhere and in the end the only trace I found was a small mention on an estate agent’s website. It was a nightmare to find. It was the middle of winter, miles off the nearest road with ten inches of snow. All I found was an abandoned cabin in the woods at the end of a footpath. I was lost, ready to call in a failed test. But then the guy steps out of the cabin. He’d just rented the place from the estate agent and said he kept getting lost too. He was amazed I’d found him.”


“I had an athlete last year who opened the door in a onesie,” says Keith 1. “He was pretty embarrassed, even more so when his wife showed up in a matching onesie. He made me swear not to tell his training mates.”


They’ve both had bad experiences with neighbours coming out screaming at them for waking everyone up. “Our instructions are to knock loudly,” says Keith 1. So if you’re one of those people blaming minicab drivers for knocking at the wrong door in the middle of the night, think again.


When a DCO comes for an out of competition test, athletes are required to confirm their home address and show proof of identity, or have a witness who can confirm it. Keith 1: “One of the famous guys used to argue – ‘You effin’ know it’s me, why do you need to…?!’ Now he just gets his ID out. It’s to avoid athletes saying afterwards that it wasn’t them.”


Keith 2 recalls a late evening call: “Must have been in November. It’s dark, rain pouring and when I finally find the address it’s down a cul-de-sac. I get out of the car, rush to the door and knock. There’s no response, so I return to the car, sit and wait for a while. We always wait the full hour to give people the chance to get back if they’ve popped out for some reason. So I wait and go back knocking a couple of times. Still no sign of the athlete. The hour was almost up and by now I start to notice curtains twitching. People thinking, what’s that bloke sitting there for? Five minutes later a car comes round the corner with blue lights. Can I step out of the car please?”


Doping controls are allocated by a dispatch team who phone up the DCOs to see if they’re available for a generic location. It can happen at any time. If information comes through from the UKAD intelligence arm, they have to act on it immediately. Keith 1: “I’ve been asked to get to Stansted on the double in whatever state of undress. It does mess with your clock.”


DCOs get their unfair share of intimidation, aggressive dogs and people, but Keith 2 says there are some pretty special stories too: “A couple of years ago I went to this guy for the first time. He’s happy to see me – ‘Good you’re here, means we can get off to a clean start’ – it was his wedding day. A year later I return and his wife is there. They seem elated, almost in a smug way, but I wasn’t sure about what. I went back just a few months ago. By then she was heavily pregnant and the baby was due that day… The guy realised I’d been there on the wedding day, the day they’d done the positive pregnancy test and now for the birth. I’m almost family.”


“It can get tricky if you get too close to people, but DCOs receive anti-bribery training,” says Keith 2. Keith 1 says he’ll have a cup of tea but that’s about it: “We don’t ask for anything. No autographs, signed photographs, pictures, shirts… you know when I think of all the people I’ve tested, I could have… At the end of the day we’re professionals, not fans. And some of the people you deal with have the financial means to bribe.”

Keith 1 is often recognised by athletes outside testing: “When I was watching the Olympic road race on Headley Heath, I chatted to a rider I’d tested who’d missed the games because of injury.  Same in football – players recognise me in spite of my hat and scarf. But I suppose you would remember someone who has watched you trying to pee for three hours. Testing has certainly changed my perception of some athletes you see behaving in a particular way on telly. When I see them, I think – why do you swank about like that on telly? You don’t talk like that to me.”


But watching people pee can’t be fun? “Not when it takes hours,” says Keith 2. The longest doping control he ever had was in a stage race: “It was after a mountain stage and it was a random check. It was a Spanish rider, obviously not a climber – he came in with the autobus. The finish was in a large square packed with people. When I got him to the control station the guy couldn’t piss. He drank one, two, three two-litre bottles. Still nothing.”


Of course drinking can dilute test results, but DCOs have no option in those situations. Keith 2 wasn’t finished yet though: “The race finished at 4pm and by 7pm we were still waiting. The square had been totally cleared – all the teams, the crowd, everyone was gone except a guy sweeping the square, plus a couple of blokes waiting to load our hut. And the DS. We had to get the job done, so in the end I suggested the rider come with me to my hotel.”


Testing at stage races is a logistical nightmare with transits, exhaustion, irritation building over weeks – traffic, media… The aggro is exponential and a slow doping test can totally mess with a rider’s routine, as every minute spent waiting eats into their recovery time.


Keith 2: “The stage race was moving on and we all needed to get to the next hotel. It turned out his team hotel wasn’t too far from mine and his DS was happy to go to my hotel. But the rider had to ride with me in the car – I couldn’t let him out of sight. So he came to my hotel room and we sat watching the stage on telly until he finally managed to squeeze out the minimum sample at 9.30pm. One thing was certain, if that guy came out of the hat again, he was going right back in.”


A few days later in the same race Keith 2 watched a massive sprint finish charging up the road: “And who do you think comes out of the middle and wins the bloody stage? Yes, same guy. Last thing I wanted was another bladder marathon. Stage races are tiring enough as it is without adding hours of waiting for someone to piss. But this time he whizzed in, completed the form, pissed like a hose on fire and signed in minutes, even before the prize ceremony. He was obviously pumped up with adrenaline. Just goes to show how different tests can be, even with the same athlete.” Bladders have mysterious ways.


Keith 1’s longest test took 7.5 hours: “But that was a sport where the finish was a long way from the control station and there were media commitments. Plus he had drunk too much water, so had to provide four samples. That was three hours of chaperoning followed by 4.5 hours of testing.” Keith 2: “It’s hell when you get a 75-year-old guy who absolutely can’t pass water, not to mention the wife coming in at one in the morning telling you ‘he’s always like this’… Not what I want to hear,” says Keith 2.


It’s often the most outgoing and macho guys who find it most difficult to piss. Keith 1: “I keep having to pinch myself – is this the same guy?” Strange to think that riders can have such a hard time pissing when the first half of pro cycling races are usually giant piss-ups. “It’s the same with needles. The bigger the guy, the likelier the needle phobia,” says Keith 2.


“Young athletes winning a first competition are usually chuffed at having a test, until it dawns on them what’s going to happen – I am going to watch them piss. And when you ask them if they want their mum to be present, it’s a ‘NO!’ When they’re under 18, I have to leave the door open and someone else has to watch me watching. And you can be sure mum’s keeping an eye on her boy too. A big bloody production,” says Keith 2. It occurs to me a similar approach is applied to our UKAD interview – we’ve got two chaperones watching me watching Keith 1, to make sure nothing inappropriate is leaked…


Keith 2 adds: “The good thing about home visits at 6am is that athletes need to go to the toilet. My quickest test was 22 minutes. It’s a guy who’s always at home. He was raring to go and I had to hold him back to get the paperwork done first.”


Being a DCO means seeing what’s going on behind the scenes and it’s not always pretty. To avoid conflicts of interest and familiarity DCOs usually don’t do the testing in their own sport. Keith 2 is particularly amazed by the things he has seen in boxing: “A few years back we were doing the testing in this backroom while the weighing was down the corridor. When it got too busy they had to move into our room. At one point this old weighing guy comes in. Behind him, the biggest bloke you’d ever seen. Can’t even get through the door – has to go in sideways and bent over. With him are three helpers. My ears prick up when I hear the old guy asking what weight class he’s fighting in. The giant says middle class! No way, he’s at least 16-17 stone. Then the old guy tells the boxer to get on the scales. While he looks down at the scale, the three helpers grab the boxer’s shorts and lift him. The shorts were up between his shoulder blades. I couldn’t believe it. As they were leaving one of the helpers noticed me staring and simply told me: ‘You didn’t see anything…’ Of course not, absolutely nothing.”


Testing conditions can be pretty strange in cycling too, but what Keith 2 experienced at the Tour of Rwanda was extreme: “The riders just didn’t know what it was about. One year [Team Rwanda manager] Jock Boyer had two teams in the race and looking at the licenses we discovered that two of the riders in the second team were juniors, so we tell him they can’t ride. ‘Give me that’, Jock says. When I did, he immediately ripped it to pieces. What are you doing? ‘I’ll get you some new ones tomorrow’. What do you mean? ‘Look, these guys were born during the genocide; they don’t even know when they were born. Their parents are dead and all birth records were destroyed. We only know birth dates within a three-year period’.” The testing situation was so bad that the testers ended up taking the riders to their hotel rooms every night – “It was the only way to maintain credible testing.”


But ultimately the job is about helping people, and one of the encounters that most impressed Keith 2 happened some years ago: “I arrived on this football ground. They’d been testing the team regularly on Mondays but there was this one player who never showed, so he was being targeted. We knew that he was around because his car – a Maserati or something ostentatious like that – was there. When they finally brought him to me, he was reeking of alcohol. I could smell it from five metres away. His test was off the scales. ‘So what’s the result’, he asks. Off the scales… ‘What should it be?’ Zero point zero. When you see something like that you realise it’s about people’s lives.” Years down the line when Keith 2 met the guy again, he said the testing had saved his life. Until then he’d had a major drink problem.


There’s a more tragic side to doping, but generally DCOs have no involvement in that. Keith 1 and 2’s job is to collect samples, not to analyse them or debrief athletes. Keith 1: “Actually my second test was a positive, but I only found out through the papers. I’ve never been called to testify or anything like that.” Keith 2 had a rider who seemed totally panicked about having a blood test and then his manager pulled out a last-minute doctor’s prescription: “It was a desperate move. That all goes in the report and of course his test turned out to be positive.”


What about delivering the sample to the lab? Keith 1 lives near the depot, so he tends to drop it off himself: “It’s quick and safe. I can be home by half nine feeling I’ve done a day’s work.” Keith 2 says urine isn’t really an issue: “Blood needs to get there as soon as possible. It’s fine when you’re in the UK, but things can get trickier overseas. The problem is that blood triggers odd reactions. People don’t understand why you transport blood. It’s also to do with cultural connotations. The paperwork is available in most languages, but it only takes an over-zealous customs officer to trap a DCO. I’ve had situations in Eastern Europe where it became clear we were never going to get the sample to the intended lab, as it required approval from the local Ministry of Sport. We ended up taking the sample to a less reliable regional lab. You really have to think on your feet.”


Is there anything they’d like to change about their job? Keith 2 thinks anti-doping is winning the battle: “It’s not over, but we’re going in the right direction.” Keith 1 suggests a wild card: “It would be great to hand out to annoying athletes. When you have a bunch of athletes smirking because they didn’t get picked you’d just say ‘I’ll have you’.” They are both adamant a proper doorbell should be made compulsory for elite athletes. Keith 2 adds that UKAD could change their name to The Office of Fair Play.


As for tips to would-be DCOs, you’ll need a firm knock. And make sure your name is Keith.


Originally published in issue 40 of Rouleur magazine. Olivier Nillsson-Julien is the author of The Ice Cage

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