Drugs on the Track:What researchers have discovered among local runners


NAIROBI, KENYA: The sterling performance by long and middle distance runners from Kenya has attracted scientists and other researchers to test the athletes from their heartbeats to the length of their tendons.

But two recent tests on the effects of Erythropoietin, commonly referred in sports as EPO, on athletes’ performance and the ongoing research on barefoot running has elicited mixed reactions from athletics fraternity. In the first research findings carried out on athletes living and training in the North Rift, Kenyans are reported to have shown an improvement of five per cent over the chosen 3,000-metre after taking EPO.

The finding is comparable and matches that seen among Scottish runners over the same distance according to the research findings presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. Twenty Kenyan runners sampled, who are based in Eldoret, an elevation of about 8,000 feet and 19 athletes based at sea level in Scotland took the EPO every two days for four weeks.

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Erythropoietin is one of the most popular and effective performance-enhancing drugs for endurance athletes as it is said to have the effect of increasing the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity.

The sampled athletes took a 3,000 metres time-trial before the study, and again immediately after they had been taking EPO for four weeks. The average improvement in both groups was five per cent.

Four weeks after they stopped doping, both groups were still at an average of three per cent faster than they had been before they took EPO, one of the agents blacklisted by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

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The improvements were similar even though before and after they doped the Kenyans had much higher haemoglobin and haematocrit values, which are indicators related to red blood cell quality and density. The research shows that athletes who are born and train at altitude benefit similarly to sea-level athletes from EPO without marked difference.

The findings are significant for two reasons. First, at least one top foreign coach has claimed that, because of their inherently different blood profiles, Kenyan runners don’t receive a performance boost from EPO.

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Renato Canova, an Italian coach who has worked with many top Kenyan marathoners, has been writing extensively in websites defending the local runners.

He left Kenya after Athletics Kenya accused him of working without a work permit and he is now the head coach of China’s national athletics team.

The runners in this study were not as fast as those Canova has been coaching. But there is no published research showing that world-class Kenyans don’t improve after doping.

The study showed a significant improvement in Kenyans with haemoglobin and haematocrit levels similar to those of world-class Kenyans athletes.

WADA, which funded the research, is set to increase out-of-competition drug testing in Kenya and Ethiopia.

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A facility to conduct blood tests, which can detect EPO and other performance-enhancing drugs, is scheduled to open in Eldoret later this year.

Doping in Kenya has been one of the leading stories in elite running over the past year. Indeed, one athlete, after being discovered, has alleged widespread doping in Kenya’s training camps.

The runner tested positive to a stimulant, and later admitted to taking EPO. In recent months, a handful of Kenyan marathoners, have received doping bans.

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Athletics Kenya Renato Canova