The distance running powerhouse enters a full-blown crisis that affects every fan of the sport.
For decades, Kenyans have dominated distance running. Since the late 1980s, the country has produced 70-to-80 percent of the winners in all major long-distance events. Scientists flocked to the East African country to study its athletes—to find out how much genetics and lifestyle play a role in their running supremacy. But that research and the myth of the Kenyan runner has been thrown into question over the past few months as several of the country’s most famous athletes have tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug EPO. Even more: Athletics Kenya (AK), the national governing body for track and field, has been accused of doing too little to address the scandal by some of the country's leading athletes.
News of doping in Kenya resurfaced last September with Rita Jeptoo. The three-time Boston Marathon winner and two-time Chicago Marathon champion tested positive for EPO in an out-of-competition collection in her home country. That test was conducted by the International Association of Athletics (IAAF) with financial support from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Both her ‘A’ and ‘B’ samples came up hot. Then last month, Julia Mumbi Muraga, another top Kenyan got popped with a two-year suspension for EPO. And just this week, it appears that another top marathoner who has yet to be named has tested positive for a banned substance.
Athletics Kenya, which started in 1951 as the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association (KAAA), is supposed to regulate the sport. It selects the Kenyan runners who compete in the Olympics and World Championships, ensuring, among many things, that they come to the start line clean. The organization imposed a two-year ban on Jeptoo, effectively eliminating the 34-year old from the 2016 Olympics and annual World Championship events.
This type of punishment is to be expected of a governing body, but it’s actually an aggressive move for Athletics Kenya, an organization that hasn’t made catching dopers like Jeptoo a priority. For example, AK announced in July 2013 that it was asked by WADA to produce a report on its doping issues to be presented at a WADA world conference in November 2013. (At that point, more than 17 Kenyan runners had been busted for doping in less than two years.) Two weeks before the report’s deadline, the BBC says, AK hadn’t even started on it. Even more: “a special committee set up by Kenya's sports bodies to look into the rash of positive tests” had not met a single time since it was formed the year earlier. As of April 2015, over 35 Kenyan runners have tested positive for banned substances in the past two years. For comparison, 10 American Track and Field athletes are currently serving doping suspensions (exact comparisons are difficult to make given the paucity of data on the number of elite and near-elite runners in Kenya and the U.S.).
Some people point to Kenya’s lack of a WADA-approved drug testing facility as one of the country’s biggest hurdles in regularly enforcing doping rules. (The closest location to test the blood of the world’s fastest runners is 2,000 miles away in South Africa.) But perhaps AK’s ineffectiveness in rooting out cheaters can be more closely linked to its leadership.
In October of last year, a month after the Jeptoo scandal broke, an independent team commissioned by the Kenyan government and WADA investigated AK and concluded that Isaiah Kiplagat, who has been at the organization's helm since 1992, “does not seem to understand the gravity of doping in athletics.” Indeed, Kiplagat once told the BBC, after 17 Kenyans had been busted for doping between January 2012 and October 2013, “I don't think there is really a problem with drugs in Kenya.”
The body’s modus operandi in the past has been to focus on the doctors and agents representing the dirty runners. In response to the recent doping scandal, Kiplagat blamed the athletes’ agents, threatening them with jail sentences—a real possibility given that enabling doping can constitute a criminal offense in Kenya. Missing from all this is accountability within AK itself. Despite the doping crisis and other scandals like the misappropriation of $2 million in grants to AK, Kiplagat remains at its helm.
Out of frustration with AK’s inaction and fueled by doubts surrounding its ethics, a faction of Kenyan runners that include former Boston champion Moses Tanui, and 2014 New York City Marathon winner, Wilson Kispang, this year have called for Kiplagat’s resignation and drastic measures like doing away with AK and forming an interim athletics agency. “In our opinion, the whole AK executive needs to be replaced and as we are ready to replace them because we believe we are capable of doing a better job than them,” Kipsang said in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi earlier this year. But despite the urgency of this request, Kenya’s Sports Cabinet Secretary, Hassan Wario, has yet to take any action.
Were this a country with a lower profile in the sport, perhaps the world wouldn’t be as shocked at or saddened. But this is Kenya. These are the runners that we’ve respected since we first put on our trainers. The idols of athletes young and old across the world. The sport's superheroes. Improperly handled, this scandal will, fairly or not, alter our notions of the genetically gifted, hard-working runners who we’ve imagined to win fair and square. And that's devastating.