Kenya’s latest doping news: a public relations dumpster fire burning out of control

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Over the weekend, Athletics Kenya was rocked by news of two athletes that were apparently captured on video being injected with Erythropoietin (EPO), a substance that increases red blood cell count – a performance enhancer that is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). According to German broadcaster ZDF, they possess the footage of the two athletes injecting. Additionally, they claim to have testimony from a physician who injected various top-level athletes.

See: Kenya’s fall from grace article from August 2018 predicting this.

For years, Kenya was considered a fertile breeding ground for middle and long-distance athletes because they live close to the earth, run and walk very long distances to school and later for work, live at elevation and eat healthily. Although much of this is true, their image is now tainted just as the Russians were in 2015, when it was found out that Russia’s athletes, seemingly across all sports, are party to systematic doping.

Russia was first banned from athletics but subsequently was banned in all sports from international competition. The All Russian Athletes Federation (ARAF) continues to serve an indefinite suspension. They will not be at the 2019 IAAF Doha World Athletics Championships starting on Sept. 27 and Tokyo 2020 doesn’t look promising either.

Kenya is in danger of the same fate. Although they apparently do not have a systematic doping problem, they do appear to have a widespread issue.

An investigation is currently underway by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU).

But this is not really new news.

In 2013, another German broadcaster ARD TV reported on near-open doping going on in Kenya. Journalist Hajo Seppelt (ARD) went undercover into Kenya as a sports agent to see if he could acquire EPO or other performance-enhancing drugs. He did, as it was reported, which created a firestorm of controversy within Athletics Kenya and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

Since then, several Kenyan athletes have tested positive for EPO.

Seppelt broke the story when he interviewed Kenyan Matthew Kisorio, who broke rank and admitted that doping is common in Kenya. Kisorio also tested positive and served a suspension.

See: Interview with Hajo Seppelt here.

When out of competition testing in Kenya started in earnest, the Kenyans began to get caught at a higher rate. In 2017, Kipyegon Bett, an 800m runner was banned four years for EPO. In 2015, Emily Chebet began her sentence for Furosemide. Marathon runner Flomena Chepchirchir was banned for six months. The notorious Marathon runner Rita Jeptoo was banned in 2014 for EPO and Agatha Jeruto Kimaswai in 2015 for Norandrosterone.

Hurdler Francisca Koki Manunga was banned four years for Furosemide. Julia Muraga in 2014 was caught for testing positive for EPO. Cyrus Njui in 2015, served just eight months for Methylefphedrine, a stimulant.

But Kenyans were getting popped before access to out of competition testing improved. As far back as 1988 and ever since, quietly, at least one Kenyan has tested positive and served a ban every year.

Cosmos Ndeti was caught with the stimulant ephedrine in his system and served a three-month suspension, possibly due to inadvertently taking a cold medication containing the once-popular synthetic version of the plant Ephedra Sinica.

In 2013, Athletics Kenya’s president Isaiah Kiplagat blamed foreign coaches for the doping issues instead of taking responsibility. He announced that all non-registered coaches have one week to leave Kenya. He was partially correct in his assertions.

During the summer of 2018, the first WADA approved laboratory in Nairobi was set up. It was a move hailed as a major development for the region’s doping crisis.

Shortly after, several more positive test results happened including Samuel Kalalei winner of the 2017 Athens Marathon, that November, tested positive for EPO. Sprinter Boniface Mweresa was removed from the Kenyan team after he failed a doping test. Former Commonwealth Games 10,000-metre gold medallist Lucy Kabuu was suspended by the AIU for failing a doping test announced on Aug. 4. 2018.

Kabuu, 34, tested positive after the Milan Marathon, for morphine of all things, a race she won in April of 2018. She won 10,000m gold and 5,000m bronze at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia.

In 2014, nothing was said, but interestingly famed Italian Coach Renato Canova, who had the largest stable of East African athletes, left Kenya for China, shortly after Kiplagat had sternly warned foreign coaches, blaming them for all of the doping issues plaguing the country.

See: Athletics Illustrated interview with Renato Canova here.

Canova, told Athletics Illustrated, as he was wont to do on popular run forums, “EPO doesn’t work on East Africans because it makes the blood too viscose”. Whether that may or may not be true, they certainly have been using it.

At the time, Canova was coaching the following East African athletes either directory or indirectly, 3000m steeplechase world record holder Saif Saseed Shaheen (7:53.63), 10,000-metre runner Nicholas Kemboi who owns a personal best time of 26:30.03. He also coached Dorcus Inzikuru world champion in 3000m steeplechase, Moses Mosop who owned the world’s second-fastest marathon (not ratified as it was run during the Boston Marathon – 2:03:06).

Canova also coached Florence Kiplagat, who is a two-time world cross country champion, Wilson Kiprop 10,000m best time (27:01.98), Silas Kiplagat, world championships silver medallist, Sylvia Kibet who also earned a silver in the 5,000m distance. Also, Imane Merga, 2011 world cross country champion and bronze medallist in 10,000m that same year, and Abel Kirui, 2011 world marathon champion. Marathon runners, Abel Kirui (2:05:04), Wilson Kipsang (2:03:13), Mary Keitany (2:18:37), Nicholas Kemboi (2:08:01), Ahmad Hassan (2:08:36), and Essa Rashed (2:10:52), Aselefech Mergia (2:19:31), Dino Sefir (2:04:50), and Yemane Adhane (2:04:48).

Track’s Moses Kiptanui 1500m (3:29.27), Sylvia Kibet 5000m (14:31.19), Florence Kiplagat 10,000m (30:11.53), Lucy Kabuu 10,000m (30:39.36), Lydia Wafula 800m (2:02.84), Thomas Longosiwa 5000m (12:51.95), Edwin Soi 5000m (12:52.40), Wilson Kiprop 10,000m (27:26.93), Faith Kipyegon 1500m (3:56.41), Geoffrey Kirui 10,000m (26:55.73), Janet Achola 1500m/3000msc (4:09.51/10:05.30).

There are more and there will be more doping cases reported in the media; it’s a public relations dumpster fire for Kenya. Kenya’s fall from grace should be a warning signal for other nations with a seemingly unending cache of running talent, like Ethiopia, Turkey, and Morocco, to clean up their act.

The 2019 IAAF Doha World Athletics Championships begin on Sept. 27. It is unlikely that Kenyans will test positive during the meet, as they, according to the physician implicated by ZDF, “don’t dope close to competition to avoid testing positive.” This is similar to a common practice of micro-dosing.

Kenya may have a doping problem, but they are not alone by any means. Regardless, they have a major public relations dumpster fire that is beginning to burn out of control.