© Copyright – 2014 – Athletics Illustrated

Recently, German television station WRD/ARD aired a three-part documentary on apparent systematic Russian doping and cover-ups and extortion by members of the Russian Anti-doping Agency (RUSADA). There are also accusations of bribery by the governing body of the sport, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in awarding games to a host city, specifically Doha, Qatar. This took place in 2011 for Doha’s bid to host the 2017 IAAF World Track and Field Championships, they lost; however, they did win the subsequent bid to host the 2019 edition of the championships.

Amongst all of this apparent (and unsubstantiated) deceit, there exists a list of athletes that are implicated for having abnormal blood values. This information is documented into the Athlete Biological Passport. The passport or ABP was designed to give a larger picture of an athlete’s history rather than attempting to detect a doping substance from a single test. Of the names on the list approximately 150 are Russian and 25 are Kenyan, amongst many more from several other countries.

The revelations, if true, could be as monumental and damning as any scandal related to sport at any time in history. This could be more damaging than the absolutely absurd Lance Armstrong-cycling debacle.

But what if the implicated names that reside on that list are not actually guilty of doping? What if there is something missing from the testing protocols or procedures of handling, storing or understanding variances in athlete condition?

Nick Davies, representing the IAAF, recently wrote in an email to certain media shortly after the documentary aired, containing the following statement:

The Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) was launched by the IAAF only in 2009, when WADA set out a harmonised regulatory framework allowing the use of reliable and comparable values. That was not the case before 2009 (different sample collections conditions, transportations and analytical equipment.).


One cannot draw any conclusion on whether or not an athlete has doped on the basis of one single blood value. The whole concept of the ABP is to monitor the variations of an athlete’s profile consisting of multiple values.

There are very few people in the world who have had long-term working conditions side-by-side with the world’s very best athletes; the particular athletes who would stand to benefit the most from taking EPO.

The world’s most successful athletics coach, who is currently active, is Italian Renato Canova. He coaches the crème de la crème of endurance runners. In fact, he recently added to his charge, the world record holder in the 5,000m and 10,000m distances, Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, in his efforts to win the Dubai marathon and take down the course record.

In the face of the greatest opposition from scientists, athletes and other world-class coaches, Canova has remained resolute and steadfast in his opinion that the very best athletes do not benefit or if they do, benefit very little from taking performance enhancing drugs, specifically EPO. EPO is a red blood cell boosting performance enhancing drug (PED).

“I continue to think that the experts of anti-doping really don’t know which variations in the blood values that proper hard training in altitude can produce.”


He told Athletics Illustrated, “There is something strange, for me, in all of this. For example, I absolutely don’t believe that 25 Kenyan athletes at the top level can be doped. Perhaps I just don’t believe this because I was there for 15 years, and Kenya is almost my second home country, or perhaps it is exactly because I personally and intimately know all the best of them! That (the latter) is why I don’t believe in these numbers.”

Although, in regards to the above statement, scientists may say Canova is only providing anecdotal observation and opinion that flies in the face of the latest science, he added, “I’m curious to see not only the names, but the blood values. I continue to think that the experts of anti-doping really don’t know which variations in the blood values that proper hard training in altitude can produce.

I want to explain one thing.

I spoke with the former coach of Alex Schwazer, the Italian Olympic champion in Beijing (50km race-walking), he is currently the head coach in China for walkers starting back in 2010 (he coached all the Olympic medals in Moscow), who heard from the Italian prosecutor about the development of his case of doping. Sandro Damilano (this is the name of the coach) told me that the prosecutor (in Italy doping is not only a matter under the authority of sport federations, but has penal effects and people go to jail) showed him the blood value of Schwazer before Beijing and was given to Italian investigators directly by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

The level of haematocrit (Hct) of Schwazer was under 40, and his hemoglobin (Hgb) under 13. The conclusion from WADA was that with these values it’s not possible to win Olympic 50km walking event, so they supposed Schwazer used some pharmaceuticals to dilute his blood.

This means that, for WADA, when the values are high it is because athletes take EPO, and when the values are low it is because they use something for diluting blood, because in any case they took EPO.

I cannot share this philosophy. 

Several times I wrote that athletes of endurance, when they are able to improve their performances with proper training, using training only, have values much, much lower than their values when they are out of shape. So, it’s a fact that training allows athletes to improve, but at the same time their blood values go down.”

For a long time – since at least the 1950s – high red blood cell count has been viewed as the magic bullet for endurance athletes. EPO or erythropoietin is an essential hormone for red blood cell production. Endurance athletes have been known to achieve higher red blood cell production by training at altitude for several weeks at a time, then coming down to sea level to take advantage of the increase. East African athletes live and train at altitude, chronically – for most of their lives, therefore the sea-level or lower-altitude residing athletes seek to equal the playing field.

A substitute option for athletes who are unable to train away at places that are located at high elevations is an altitude tent. They first came to market in the early 1990s. The tent is air-tight and equipped with a motor that provides partial air pressure and drops the normal sea-level oxygen from 20.9% to as low as 12%, the remainder of the air is made up of nitrogen, simulating an altitude-like environment.

Blood doping with transfusions at one time was used before EPO became the PED of choice. Blood doping increases the amount of haemoglobin in the bloodstream, which is an oxygen-carrying protein. Increasing haemoglobin allows higher amounts of oxygen to reach and fuel an athlete’s muscles. The most common and adverse effects of blood doping are heart attack, stroke and pulmonary embolism.

Haematocrit or HTC, also known as PCV, is the percentage of volume of red cells in the blood. Normal values are around 45% for men and 40% for women.

Haemaglobin (Hgb) is an iron rich, oxygen-carrying metalloprotein in the red blood cells, which carry oxygen from the lungs to the working muscles. Where Canova refers to the measure for Hgb in the 50km race-walker and that number being low, for the average male the reading should be somewhere between 13.8 to 18.0 grams per litre; again the race-walker’s reading was below 13.

There is, however, plenty of recent evidence that indicates EPO improves performance, a paper from 2013, here  found similar performance improvement results of 6%., to other studies (indicated below).

According to one physiologist, “There is data to suggest that athletes that have a high background or baseline of red blood cells, such as Kenyans, respond less to altitude and thus (in theory) would respond less to EPO because they do not have as much RBC head room to move into, but there is still headroom. However, as shown by *Prommer et al., on average, Kenyan’s have the same amount of haemoglobin as elite German runners. So outliers, who have high natural RBC’s, whether Kenyan or European, both would get less response, but on average should behave the same.”

According to one recently published scientific paper **Guadalupe, it is the first to show that EPO also improves and increases the mitochondrial enzymes and capillaries inside of the muscle – so not just increases in RBC’s, but actual changes inside of the muscle. And according to the physiologist, “We have known since 1995 that it appears that Kenyan running muscle is very similar to European runner’s muscles. So again, it would appear that Kenyan muscle, in theory, would react the same way to EPO administration as the muscle found in the Guadalupe paper.”

Likewise, according to Canova, there are no genetic benefits found in East African athletes, as he has also found that their blood values drop to the same level as those that reside at sea level, when attending training camps in Europe. It appears, here at least, there is an accord between Canova’s anecdotal observations and the latest science.

“I had the possibility, with my Chinese athletes (not really top athletes, but in any case of international level), to do blood tests every single week for a period of three months before the Asian Games. We had two months of preparation in Duoba (2300m of altitude), and I wanted to see the individual responses to altitude, not only at the beginning and at the end of the period, but looking at the evolution, week-by-week. I had very strong improvements in their performances, with training only, and their blood values practically did not change. This means that the main advantages of altitude training are not in the increase of the number of erythrocytes or in the size of red blood cell count (RBC) (African athletes, in any case, have bigger mean corpuscular volume (MCV) than European and American athletes), but in something else, for example the ability to extract oxygen from the atmosphere. For understanding some fluctuations in blood values of Kenyan runners, we need to analyze two main points:

1. If the tests they had were at the same level of altitude

2. Their activity before their test.

I had the opportunity to see how Kenyan runners, while staying for a long time in Europe at sea level, change their blood values, which become similar to the values of athletes normally training at sea level (so their values are not genetic, but depends on the place where they live and train),” shared Canova.

According to the latest scientific studies as well as Canova’s anecdotal findings, a test at altitude versus a test at sea level can give different values as well as his findings that fitness at any altitude will also provide differing results. Citing this, Canova refuses to give any scientific validity to any test without explanations of the data from the variations of altitude and states of fitness. Canova added, “It’s clear that many athletes use doping, but is not clear the advantages blood doping can produce.”

One study that administered EPO to Kenyan athletes proved that EPO works. Summary of the study from the University of Glasgow website, where the author wrote, “We had previously shown that haemoglobin mass, maximal aerobic capacity and running performance were improved following four weeks of Erythropoietin (rHuEpo) and remained elevated for four weeks after administration in trained Caucasian men at sea level.

In Kenya we demonstrated a similar ergogenic advantage of rHuEpo in Kenyan endurance athletes. Despite the smaller increment in blood parameters (e.g. haematocrit: 9.7±4.7% in Kenya vs. 17.6±4.9% in Glasgow), both groups attained similar peak haematocrit levels (~49%) and similar performance benefits (~ 5%). The results can be found here.

“I don’t have any evidence that doping doesn’t work, but I have some evidence that the most part of people can’t have: The possibility to run at world record pace being completely clean.”

Although it is often said that science often legitimizes what is discovered first in practical application or anecdotal observations, scientists have yet to spend the amount of time as Canova has, working with the very best athletes of the world. Is there something that science will verify in the future, that is only an assumed benefit at this time?

Canova said, “You can tell me that I can’t know what my athletes are up to all of the time, true, but I’m completely sure about some athletes such as Shaheen, Nicholas Kemboi, Moses Mosop and Florence Kiplagat as they were always with me for a long time, sometimes (the case of Nicholas) for two months in the same room. I am speaking of five world record holders and an athlete with very short career at his best, but for a bad injury he was able to run 26’30” in the 10,000m, moving down from 28’19” with two months of proper training.

The second evidence I have is that everybody among the athletes using training only, when we were able to improve their shape (and consequently their performances) had values lower than when they were in worse shape, so blood values do not have any influence in spite of what doctors and scientists believe.”

Canova feels that there are outside forces at work, influencing the business of anti-doping, he added, “It’s clear that at the moment, there is a deep war between the different organizations involved in anti-doping: WADA, IAAF, National Agencies, and Federations, “Anti-doping is now a big business, and everybody tries to bring water to his mill, increasing the effects of blood doping on the performances, and also on the risks for health.

I work in different way, and not many doctors can have the opportunity to work with continuity with top African runners. If, and when, you can do it, you can see how the current limits are still far from the human possibilities, for athletes with top talent, and full focus in their proper training.”

Canova feels that while scientists, athlete managers and coaches continue to make PEDs out to be a magic bullet, they are only feeding them with the desire to win via this supposed shortcut, “I don’t accept the fact that blood doping can give big advantages to athletes with top talent, at their best training level. And, if other coaches and doctors can support the idea automatically we will drastically reduce the number of athletes looking at PEDs, if they think this doesn’t give any advantage (or very little advantage only).”

Regardless of whether or not EPO can be proven or not to directly assist the top endurance athletes, they are being caught, while performances continue to improve. The men’s marathon world record is currently at 2:02:57, a time that until recently would have thought as impossible without doping and perhaps even with doping.

A quick look at the men’s all-time fastest marathon results show that of the top-110 fastest marathons, 107 of them have taken place since 2007.

Accomplished in 1998, Ronaldo da Costa of Brazil set the world record at 2:06:05 in Berlin, it stood for eight years and four days before Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie broke it with his 2006 Berlin Marathon performance of 2:05:56. Previous to da Costa’s record, Ethiopia’s Belayneh Dinsamo held the world marathon record for an entire decade at 2:06:50. All but 25 of the top-110 times have been run since 2010. PED use was considered non-existent in Kenya until 2006 or 2007. East African athletes up until then would not even take over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, (NSAIDs), such as Ibuprofen for common maladies. It was at this time that accessibility to PEDs increased in Kenya.

“Of course, some years ago, some European pseudo-manager or pseudo-coach introduced doping to Kenya. When I say top Kenyans are clean, I say this because I never heard any request of support (not with doping, but not with legal supplements too) by any top Kenyan athletes (not only with me in training, but generally in training in Iten) until 2011.

I think this transformation started in Kapsabet, due to some pseudo-manager coming from Austria. He was banned from ski-cross during the 2006 Turin Winter Olympic Games, when the group of Austrian officials escaped from the Olympic Village during a search by Italian police looking at PEDs. They escaped by car, had a car accident at the border in Brennero, so Italian police could stop them, finding EPO and steroids in their car. Two years later, the same person went to Kapsabet, for creating a training camp, using a normal touristic Visa, and arguably started to spread some illegal substance in the area, involving local doctors who “recruited” normal athletes, promising big leap of qualities in their performances if using their advice,” shared Canova.

Davies suggested in the aforementioned email message that the correct method to deal with doping is to go to the IAAF Ethics Commission, “The Guardian (newspaper) makes reference to emails and documents which the IAAF has not seen, and these documents and any complaints should be sent to the independent IAAF Ethics Commission, which has full powers to investigate and issue sanctions if necessary. The IAAF firmly believes that the Ethics Commission is the correct platform for any complaints and urges any members of the athletics family to contact this body directly.”

Although the Ethics Commission should be the correct route to go with evidence, there is concern about IAAF personal, connected to the commission or not. For example Dr. Gabriel Dollé, the director of the medical and anti-doping department at the IAAF oversaw all doping-related aspects of IAAF events, athletes and associated matters. After being interviewed by the commission he had to step down. Was he the proverbial fox guarding the hen house?

Valentin Balakhnichev, has voluntarily decided to cease exercising his duties as treasurer and council member until an independent IAAF Ethics Commission’s investigation has concluded.

Papa Massatta Diack has stepped aside from his position in marketing with the IAAF, as his apparent bribery scandal is also under investigation.

Canova said, “I love athletics, and I believe in athletics. I invite you to believe that 98% of the best African runners in middle and long distances are clean, because this is the truth, and if we continue to speak about doping, we become the best testimonial for pushing all the athletes knowing never they can be tested (beginners, runners in the high school, amateurs) to take doping, thinking they can dramatically change their performances (that is true only if they don’t want to train).

I fully support the action of athletes, coaches and managers who cheat can go to jail (or can have other types of penalties if foreigners, from exclusion orders to big economic fines), and this is what all the best professional athletes want.”

Meanwhile RUSADA is also under the microscope for apparently covering up hundreds of positive test results as well as apparent extortion of Russian marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova. She paid RUSADA approximately $600,000 to cover up her positive drug test.

Yuliya Stepanov, the 2012 London Olympic Games 800m champion’s husband, (Vitaliy) career is focused on eradicating doping in sport and is an employee with RUSADA; he helped his wife dope and is now helping his wife expose Russia and RUSADA through the media, which has manifested in the three-part documentary that aired on ARD television and subsequently the Ethics Commission has been called into duty.

Would the independent Ethics Commission have known to investigate the above accusations had it not been for the documentary by ARD Television, How Russia Makes Champions? Athletics is at a critical point in its history. As a niche sport in many parts of the world and with the threat of certain events being removed from the Olympic Games (200m, 10,000m, race-walk and shotput), the sport cannot afford to let bribery, cover-ups, extortion and performance enhancing drug taking carry on any longer.

Canova currently coaches the Chinese women’s team. In addition to recently taking on Bekele, he has also coached the following (this is not a complete list):



Moses Mosop – 2:03:06
Abel Kirui – 2:05:04
Wilson Kipsang (that he advises in his programs) – 2:05:49
Mary Keitany (coached directly by Canova’s disciple Gabriele Nicola) – 2:18:37

Marathon Runners directly coached by Canova in Kenya, but are Qatari

Nicholas Kemboi – 2:08:01
Ahmad Hassan – 2:08:36
Essa Rashed – 2:10:52

Track Runners:

Silas Kiplagat – 1500m, Canova coaches along with Moses Kiptanui – 3:29.27
Sylvia Kibet – 5000m – 14:31.19
Florence Kiplagat – 10000m – 30:11.53
Lucy Kabuu – 10000m – 30:39.36
Lydia Wafula – 800m – 2:02.84
Thomas Longosiwa – 5000m – 12:51.95
Edwin Soi – 5000m – 12:52.40
Wilson Kiprop – 10000m – 27:26.93

The following are coached locally in Kenya by Charles Ngeno, in Keringet using Canova’s program:

Faith Kipyegon – 1500m – 4:09.48
Geoffrey Kirui – 10000m – 26:55.73

Track runners coached directly by Canova, but are Ugandan:

Docus Inzikuru – 3000m steeplechase – 9:15.04
Janet Achola – 1500m/3000 steeplechase – 4:09.51/10:05.30



Aselefech Mergia – 2:19:31
Dino Sefir – 2:04:50
Yemane Adhane – 2:04:48

Track runners with Canova programs, with and without a local coach, in Ethiopia:

Imane Merga – 5000m/10000m – 12:53.58/26:48.35
Yacob Jarso – 3000m steeplechase – 8:12.13
Abeba Arigawi – 1500m – 4:01.96

Track runners with Canova programs, under national coaches in Ethiopia:

Mekonnen Gebremedhin – 1500m – 3:31.57
Yenew Alamirew – 1500m – 3:35.09


Samuel Tsegay – marathon – 207:28
* Pommer et al:

Total Hemoglobin Mass and Blood Volume of  Elite Kenyan Runners
NICOLE PROMMER1, Copyright @ 2010 by the American College of Sports Medicine.

** Gaudalupe, et al:

Effects of an 8-weeks erythropoietin treatment on mitochondrial and whole body fat oxidation capacity during exercise in healthy males
Amelia Guadalupe-Graua, http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjsp20