Jorgic: In Kenya’s running heartlands, doping claims threaten livelihoods
The athletes who pound the dirt trails snaking through Kenya’s lush Rift Valley region have spawned a local industry around their talent and forged a reputation as the world’s finest long-distance runners.
But explosive media claims of widespread doping in their ranks, including allegations against Kenya’s Olympic medal winners, have cast a shadow over a sport that many in this impoverished region see as a ticket to wealth and stardom.
Kenyan athletics chiefs have dismissed the doping claims as a “smear campaign”, yet coaches and runners have warned that the east African nation needs to face up to the problem if it is to protect its rich running legacy and lucrative sponsorship deals.
“It worries everyone. Not (just) athletes, even their families,” said Moses Kiptanui, 44, a three-time world steeplechase champion who in 2013 became the first high-profile athlete to warn that Kenya faced a doping problem.
“Their earnings will come down and nobody will want to put money in sponsorship,” said Kiptanui, a son of subsistence farmers who used his athletics earnings in the 1990s to build hefty dairy and maize businesses.
Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper and German broadcaster ARD/WDR last weekend said they had been leaked suspicious blood results from more than 800 athletes, including 77 Kenyans.
The Sunday Times alleged that athletes who won a fifth of Kenya’s 92 Olympic and world championship medals between 2001-2012 had suspicious blood results.
An ARD/WDR documentary aired on Saturday showed a hidden camera purportedly revealing Kenyan athletes being injected with performance-enhancing drugs. It also alleged that corrupt Athletics Kenya (AK) officials had covered up failed tests.
Kenya’s London Marathon winners Wilson Kipsang and Eliud Kipchoge this week pleaded with athletics fans across the globe to keep faith in them, saying top Kenyan runners were “clean”.
Yet others conceded a cloud of suspicion now hangs above them all.
“If someone now wins a race, in their minds (people) are always saying ‘athletes of Kenya are using drugs’, which is not good,” said Lucas Rotich, winner of the Hamburg Marathon in Germany.
In the last three years 33 Kenyans have failed drugs tests but only Rita Jeptoo, winner of Boston and Chicago Marathons, can be classed as a top runner. Her two-year ban in January shocked Kenya’s athletes as it showed doping was not restricted to low-level runners seeking get-rich-quick schemes.
Like many others training Kenyans, Dutch coach Hugo van den Broek resents the way drugs cheats have stolen the limelight from the jaw-dropping talent in Iten, a small town which has become Kenya’s running centre and a global athletics hub.
“Four or five years ago I used to believe there was no such thing as doping (in Kenya),” he said. “I’ve come to realize that it’s there and I just hope, and still kind of believe, there are not many real top athletes involved.”
“DODGING THE TRUTH”
Perched on a Rift Valley escarpment 8,000 feet above sea level, Iten regularly hosts foreign Olympians such as Mo Farah, who cross continents to train with Kenya’s elite runners. British, Chinese and Dutch national teams also prepared for the London Olympics in Iten’s high-altitude training camps.
Some Kenyans fear well-heeled foreign athletes may now avoid Iten due to persistent doping claims, a major threat for hotels, camps and other job-yielding businesses built around running.
Athletics Kenya has in the past blamed unscrupulous doctors and pharmacists for doping, saying they target desperate athletes seeking overnight riches. AK had also banned two foreign coaches.
But athletes and coaches in Iten say AK ought to shoulder some of the blame as its blanket denials and inaction have helped no one.
Kipsang, who won silver at the London Olympics and hosts runners in his Iten-based hotel, said AK has fallen short in “creating awareness and making sure control measures” were in place to stop cheats.
“It’s high time AK stands up and tells Kenyans the truth about (doping). They have been dodging the truth for long, which has seen them give foreigners fodder to tarnish Kenya,” added Silas Kiplagat, who won 1500m silver at the 2011 world championships.
AK has denied corruption allegations and said the latest doping claims were an effort to destabilise Kenyan athletes ahead of this month’s world championships in Beijing.
Barnaba Korir, AK’s Nairobi branch chairman said the body has tackled doping seriously but needs more help from the government, including in educating runners and building a blood testing lab.
“The name of Kenya has been put on the map of the world as a result of our runners, so definitely resources must be put into this,” added Korir, who said AK was unsure if criminalising doping would help curb the problem.
A government task force last year started investigating doping in Kenya but AK refused to cooperate. The police have also questioned top AK officials about why they made personal withdrawals from a bank account where Nike had deposited sponsorship money.
When former athlete Kiptanui, considered a running great in Kenya, started raising alarm bells about drugs cheats, AK officials accused him of soiling Kenya’s reputation and attacked him by insinuating he may have also used drugs.
“Many Kenyans are clean, it’s some few individuals that need to be exposed. But if you don’t expose them, then (how) do we know who is clean and who is not clean. Nobody knows,” Kiptanui said.
Drazen Jorgic is the East Africa Correspondent for Reuters.