[email protected]NAIROBI, KENYA: In 2011, Wilson Erupe Loyanai, a little-known Kenyan athlete, caused international stir when he won the Seoul International Marathon in a course record of 2:05:37 hours.
Not only did he beat his more favoured compatriots, but he also shaved off four minutes of his personal best time and set a course record in the process. That feat placed him among the top 100 marathoners of all time.
In the unforgiving world of marathon, seconds, let alone a minute, define athletes and anyone who runs a time of 2:06 is generally considered among the best athletes in the world.
But if an athlete runs a time below that, it can only mean two things: one, that particular athlete is a true sporting revelation – a breathing human dynamo. Or, two, he is powered by something else.
And that is why Erupe’s feat – made all more remarkable by the fact that he achieved it only in his third international outing – attracted the attention of athletics fraternity.
But his time at the top of the athletics world was akin to the life of a shooting star – bright but brief. It was not long before the truth about his spectacular performance came out.
An out-of-competition test done on him by officials from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) revealed that he was using the performance-enhancing drug Erythropoitein, popularly known as EPO.
EPO is known to boost oxygen supply to the muscles and is generally the drug of choice for cheating athletes throughout the world. Erupe was banned in January 2013 for two years.
He is one of 17 Kenyan athletes currently serving out bans for doping, a vice that seems to be taking root in Kenya even as the officials concerned continue to downplay it.
We sought out Erupe in his home in Eldoret for an interview but he declined to meet us. “I made my money and I do not owe anyone any explanations,” he told our investigative team over the phone.
However, investigations by The Standard on Sunday reveal that doping is no longer a secret and athletes openly and casually talk about it the way one talks about eating lunch.
Conversations about the drug use tend to go like this: “You see so and so? Yes, the one that won that marathon? Well, he or she is a ‘boosters’ guy.”
“Boosters”, as athletes refer to the banned drugs, threaten to taint the image of a sport that has marketed the country internationally so effectively than any marketing campaign could ever achieve.
“Only a fool can deny that it is happening,” said athletics legend Kipchoge Keino, who is also the chairman of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya.
In the pantheon of Kenya’s world-conquering athletes, none occupies a more exalted place than Dr Keino, who is also an honorary member of the International Olympic Committee.
His well-documented feats in the track have made him a household name for the ages, a standard by which every other Kenyan athlete will be measured against.
These accomplishments have also earned him the right to speak freely and authoritatively about the problems that bedevil the sport he and his cohorts pioneered and took to international standards.
For him, doping became a close and personal problem when Mathew Kisorio was banned and openly admitted in a German TV documentary that he did it because “everyone was doing it”.
Kisorio, a former world junior 5,000m silver medalist who has run the third fastest half marathon ever, received a two-year ban in 2012 for using norandrosterone.
His admission, the first one by a marquee Kenyan athlete, sent shockwaves throughout the athletics fraternity and led to demands for Kenyan authorities to reveal more than it is willing to about the issue.
Sweat and toil
And this is how it became a close personal issue to Mr Keino: “When I retired from athletics, I established 64 Runners Club in Eldoret where I coached a crop of runners among them the late Some Muge, the father of Mathew Kisorio. So it obviously pains me to no end that somebody is benefiting from the sweat and toil of my friend’s son.”
When this writer asked for an interview on Wednesday with the long-serving president of Athletics Kenya, Mr Isaiah Kiplagat, his response was brusque:
“You write whatever you want to write. I don’t care. You are not a patriot and that is why you are doing that. I know you and Omulo (Standard Sports Editor Omulo Okoth) are on a witch-hunt. In any case, what do you think you will get by what you are doing? You write and you will see if you are not going to go home the next day.”
The AK boss has said in past interviews that allegations of doping in the country are grossly exaggerated, noting that those who have been caught were not the cream of Kenyan athletes.
However, this position flies in the face of the continued discovery of more and more athletes using banned substances. The 17 athletes were banned between 2012 and 2013.
In light of these discoveries, WADA and the International Association of Athletics Federations demanded more accountability from Kenya, forcing the government to set up the anti-doping taskforce last year.
The commission is yet to finish its work and could not share its findings so far. But it said in a recent media briefing that it has so far interviewed just a handful of the athletes banned for doping offences.
Doping is either deliberate or accidental. One can run afoul of the World Anti-Doping Code inadvertently by taking medication that contains banned substances.
This has been the case with a number of banned Kenyan female athletes. One claimed that she took fertility drugs but she did not know that they contained banned substances.
Then there is the deliberate doping intended to boost one’s performance. In some cases this can be institutionalised as was the case in Eastern European countries during the 1970s and 1980s.
There is no proof yet that such a thing is happening in Kenya and majority of Kenyan athletes are clean.
However, the discovery of more athletes using performance-enhancers such as EPO is a cause for worry.
Few of those who have been caught want to talk about it and fewer still of those yet to be caught but who admit in private to using the drugs want to go on record.
Nonetheless Kenyan-born Qatari Musa Amer Obaid, formerly Moses Kipkurui, talking from experience, said doping is a “day-to-day activity nowadays, especially in Eldoret”.
In 2006, Musa Amer was found guilty of testosterone doping. He was suspended by IAAF from September 2006 to September 2008 and lives in Eldoret.
He said he has no regrets for the decisions he made and which ended his career prematurely. “I was doing it and I believe you cannot compete when you are ‘clean’. It’s like competing with high speed car,” he said.
Amer finished fourth in the 3,000 metres steeplechase at the 2004 Olympics in Greece at a personal best time of 8:07.18 minutes. He had won the silver medal at the World Junior Championships a month earlier.
“I do not think an athlete can run under 2:06 in marathon or run better times even in track. Nearly all of them use drugs and if anyone of these athletes disputes this, let’s all line up for tests,” said Musa Amer.
Although AK officials sing a united song denouncing claims of widespread doping among Kenyan athletes in public, in private some of them acknowledge the scale of the problem.
A top official at Riadha House showed this reporter a copy of tests done secretly by one of the international athletics’ body on a top athlete at a camp based in Nyahururu before and after travelling abroad for a race.
The results showed a marked increase in number of red blood cells and haemoglobin levels, which the organisation concluded, was a result of doping.
“It should not be a surprise that even the best of our runners are doing it. I know they are using these substances. But we are abetting it by downplaying the scale of the problem,” said the official who sought anonymity because he is not the official spokesman for AK.
The vice is now big business for doctors in the North Rift towns of Eldoret and Kapsabet who prescribe and administer the drugs to athletes, and the chemists which sell and stock to them.
In the course of this investigation, our team was referred by athletes to several chemists at the heart of Eldoret and Kapsabet towns known for selling the drugs to athletes.
We were given the names of common, but fairly cheap drugs used by athletes here, Recormon and Ventor, drugs used to treat anemia and relieve extreme pain respectively.
Posing as a customer, this journalist requested to buy Recormon for a sick relative at one of the identified chemists in Eldoret. “The Sh2,500 or the Sh5,000 one?” asked the young pharmacist at the counter.
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
He helpfully explained that the drug is used by anemic patients to raise their haemoglobin levels, and that the price of it varies with the strength of the drug; the higher the price the stronger it is.
Since I did not know the exact one, which my non-existent patient wanted, he asked for a doctor’s prescription. “We cannot simply sell you these things over the counter. They are also anabolic steroids.”
I pleaded ignorance and he explained that they can be used by athletes to boost their capacity to retain oxygen. Feigning disinterest, I asked him whether athletes do come to buy the drugs from them.
“Yes, some,” he said. “For how much?” I asked. He smiled and moved on to serve the next customer. The story was similar at another chemist, which we had been told about where we enquired about Ventor.
The fierce competition among Kenyan athletes has been its strength and also its weakness in regards to emergence of doping as a serious stain to the sport here.
It is said that Kenya has the highest number of world-class middle and long distance runners, a fact proven beyond doubt by the number of international races won by Kenyans as opposed to any other country.
In recent times, the petrodollar Gulf states, such as Qatar, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, have given a lifeline to those who fail to rise to the elite levels here in Kenya.
Hungry for glory in sports to match their emergence as economic powerhouses, these countries lure the athletes with promises of riches untold to fly their flags in international competitions.
“The competition is so high that some of those who have staked their future on athletics are tempted to use any means, foul or fair, to achieve their ends,” said former steeplechase record holder Moses Kiptanui.
Dr Keino blames foreign agents and coaches for the emergence of the problem. “These people have no regard for our athletes’ well-being. Their interests are purely commercial and they don’t care how they misuse our young people so long as they achieve their aims,” said Dr Keino.
Drugs dished out
A recently retired athlete who was in a camp managed by an Italian coach who has since left the country described how he saw drugs being distributed to athletes before a race in Germany in 2008.
“The drugs were lined up in table – supplements and all. He told us that he was the best doctor in the business and would make sure that we are not caught,” he said.
Most of the top Kenyan athletes are coached and managed by foreigners, especially from Europe. None of these coaches, we learned, has ever been punished in relation to doping of Kenyan athletes.
Although AK has placed much premium on the fact that none of its elite athletes has been caught so far, Brother Colm O’Connell reckons that is little consolation in this age of rigorous testing.
Brother O’Connell is a former principal of St Patrick’s Iten High School and the most successful middle-distance coach ever in the world having coached virtually all of Kenya’s world-beaters.
He came to Kenya in 1976 from Ireland as a Geography teacher, spotted the abundant talent and is rightly considered the architect of Kenya’s domination of the middle distance races for the past 30 years.
And so his words carry a lot of weight when he says:
“You cannot deny that some athletes here are using drugs. Young kids being caught. That worries me. It makes me sad. But I am glad that so far none of the top athletes have been caught. If that were to happen then our reputation will be mortally damaged. But I feel the relevant authorities have been slow in acknowledging the issue.”
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