On March 24, 2007, an 18-year-old athlete was out to prove a point.
In sweltering heat, and a cheering crowd, young Asbel Kiprop licked his lips and looked up towards the cloudless sky and perhaps said a simple prayer as hundreds of others behind him jostled to get their running shoes tucked into soft ground of Mombasa Golf Club.
The temperatures and humidity in the Kenyan coastal resort city created a perfect recipe for chaos for the thousands participating in that year’s IAAF Athletics Championships.
On that day, Kiprop ran the first of many races of his life. After keeping up with the leading pack that included Leonard Komon, Vincent Chepkop and Mathew Kisorio, he slowly, in his now famous long strides, systematically made his way towards the front, overtaking the other three Kenyans. He was in imperious form. First he took out Chepkop, then Kisorio.
The race then became between him and Komon. The distance between the duo and the tape was 500 metres.
With 300 metres to go, Kiprop kicked, opening up a gap of a metre between him and Komon with each stride.
Twenty-four minutes after the gun had sounded, Kiprop was the new World Junior Cross Country champion.
Unknown to him, the rest of his career would be spent chasing after highs similar to that he got in Mombasa.
Sometimes though, as a recent anti-doping result has shown, this high has been possibly achieved through whatever means necessary, including the use of a banned substance.
On Tuesday, news broke that he was the umpteenth Kenyan athlete to test positive for a performance enhancing drug, setting the 28-year-old fierce defender of clean running on a race for his life.
A random, out-of-competition testing for banned substances, turned positive for erythropoietin (EPO), adding on to the list of Kenyan track stars who have tested positive for EPO.
Kiprop, as expected, on Wednesday issued a personal statement on his social media pages, denying any wrongdoing while insisting he remains a clean athlete.
The former Olympic and triple world 1,500 metres champion said he would prove he was clean.
The world champion in 2011, 2013 and 2015 and promoted to Olympic gold in 2008 after Bahrain’s Rashid Ramzi tested positive for doping, was reported by Britain’s Press Association to have failed the test.
I am clean
“I have read the reports linking me to doping. As an athlete, I have been at the forefront of the fight against doping in Kenya. A fight I strongly believe in and support. I would not want to ruin all what I have worked for since my first international race in 2007. I hope I can prove that I am a clean athlete in every way possible,” Kiprop said in the statement.
But the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) issued its own statement confirming Kiprop’s culpability.
“The AIU confirms that recombinant erythropoietin (“EPO”) was detected in a urine sample collected from Mr Kiprop on November 27, 2017. On March 16, 2018, Mr Kiprop was charged with violations of the IAAF Anti-Doping Rules and the matter is currently proceeding before the independent IAAF Disciplinary Tribunal,” the AIU said.
Kiprop’s Italian agent Federico Rosa was quoted as saying he was aware of the reports but had no further details.
Other Kenyan elite runners – three-time Boston Marathon champion Rita Jeptoo and Olympic marathon champion Jemima Sumgong, also managed by Rosa, have also tested positive for a cocktail of banned substances.
Kiprop’s red flag is another damning condemnation of Kenya’s domination of middle and long distance running.
The former world beater now finds himself boxed in and on the inside track of a crowded unfamiliar race.
A race harder than that mid-morning 24-minute battle in Mombasa.
Eleven years on he is running for neither medal nor glory. He is running for the preservation of a legacy that might soon erase his status of legend, to that of cheater.
He is running for absolution. Something more valuable than all the races he has won in his decade- long career.