Doping documentary on Kenya: Was it responsible or reckless journalism?

The truth regarding the latest ARD documentary

There is no question about it. Track and field has a doping problem. Performance enhancing drug use has pervaded international athletics like a malignant tumor, and the ever present war against this cancer has caused irreparable damage to the integrity of the sport. As an athlete, fan, and researcher of track and field, I find this conflict both unfortunate and necessary, because at stake is the spirit of the sport.

That is why I have no issues with efforts to curb this doping epidemic. I support international anti-doping measures, governments that take action against PED's to ensure the integrity of their national teams and athletes, and even journalism that brings to light the terrible doping underground that plagues track and field.

This shadow game of illegal drug use has crept into every discipline within the athletic catalog, as well as every nation that fly a flag around the world’s Olympic stadiums. After spending the past 4 months doing research in Iten, Kenya, I can confidently say that even this nation, once held as the pinnacle of clean sport, has also fallen under the shadow of doping.

The dozens of failed drug tests over the past few years by its athletes, including high profile busts involving Rita Jeptoo and Matthew Kisorio, has placed Kenya on the WADA hot seat; with nations such as Germany clamoring to enforce on the East African nation the same punishments levied against Russia. In my time here in Iten, I have observed how this global pressure has not gone unnoticed by the athletes and authorities of the sport.

Social media has constantly been abuzz with Kenya’s biggest stars condemning the use of drugs. Every track meeting that I have attended sends a clear message that doping has no place in Kenyan sport. Banners declare loudly, “Just say NO to doping” and were in full force at the most recent Kenyan Olympic Trials.

Coaches and even some agents I have spoken with regularly try to educate their runners about the dangers of doping, and I know that three of Kenya’s most high profile coaches are frequently communicating with WADA and IAAF authorities to help curb drug use. Athletics Kenya, the IAAF and WADA do their best to monitor rouge doctors throughout the Rift Valley province, and I have seen firsthand the warnings they send via email tipping off coaches to the names and whereabouts of these corrupt individuals. I have watched as the Kenyan government wrestles with legislature that they hope can protect their greatest global export, the Kenyan athlete. They have arrested doctors, investigated hospitals, and most recently interrogated the regions agents and coaches in hopes to get answers and results regarding Kenya’s doping problem.

It has in many ways been a slow a frustrating process, and obviously more needs to be done to make Kenya compliant with international PED regulation. But that does not mean this cancer is not being vigorously fought along the rolling hills of the Great Rift Valley, by people passionate about safeguarding the spirit of the sport. I applaud anything, be it an athlete, or coach, or reporter, or a business that takes the doping threat seriously and takes action to fight it.

Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Center is one such place willing to be proactive against doping. In fact, the camp is one of the few places in all of Kenya that has been completely compliant with WADA rules and anti-doping regulation. Since its founding over a decade ago, this camp has attracted athletes from all over the world to come and experience the Kenyan running phenomenon. These athletes take advantage of the camp’s state-of-the-art facilities, Iten’s high altitude, and its proximity to the local athletes that train daily at dawn along the Rift Valley escarpment. Lornah and her husband Pieter believed that by providing the world access to Kenya’s unique and inspiring athletic culture, they could help to motivate foreign athletes to succeed all the while providing an economic stimulus to the poverty stricken regions of western Kenya.

This dream has been realized in many ways. Countless numbers of foreign athletes have left Kenya with a renewed sense of purpose, and Iten’s citizens, schools and businesses have been significantly helped by the tourism and charity of the camp’s visitors. Kamariny Primary school for example, a local elementary school two kilometers down the road from the gates HATC, has over the past 10 years been completely rebuilt and repainted, and its children are regularly provided with shoes and uniforms by Lornah and her customers. Dozens of Iten’s amateur athletes have been sponsored by foreigners who have stayed at the HATC, some of which were even given a chance to race overseas and bring home essential income for their family. One man, who’s name I will not disclose, was brought over to the UK by friends of the camp and given an opportunity to run a local road. He won the race, and roughly $2000, which he used to purchase a small plot of land in Iten and some cows. The race effectively changed his life.

The steady stream of foreign athletes and tourists has also helped make Iten one of the fastest growing and successful town’s in Western Kenya. Banks have moved in along the town’s mainstreet to accommodate the influx of foreign currencies and wire transfers, and businesses that sell Kenyan running gear to inspired foreigners have multiplied over the past decade. Restaurants have sprouted up throughout Iten, and successful athletes, such as Wilson Kipsang, have taken a page out of Lornah’s book and built their own hotels and training camps in and around the “Home of the Champions”.

This economic growth, charity, and strong community of athletes would not be possible without Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Center, and the camp is sensitive to this fact. That is why it takes the threat of doping so seriously:

Whenever an individual books a room at the HATC, they undergo a background check to make certain that they have never failed a performance enhancing drug test. To do this, the camp works closely with WADA to ensure that their guests have not crossed that red-line in the past. In the rare instance that a wannabe guest has failed a drug test, they are refused admittance to the camp.

When vetted guests do arrive at the HATC, each is required to show their passport to security and have it photocopied. This is to determine that the identity of the person and make certain it matches with the individual who booked the room. The photocopied information is also used to help WADA know which athletes are staying at the camp.

If for some reason the camp suspects anything nefarious, WADA is notified immediately. The camp’s director, Richard Mukche, explained to me an incident where this occurred back in 2015, “The camp’s cleaning staff once found suspicious items in the camper’s rooms (I was shown a picture of syringes and glass bottles in a box). We didn’t know what it was, but it looked illegal, so we quickly collected all of the material, packaged it, and sent it off to WADA. We also gave WADA the name of the athlete where we found the items. WADA confirmed to us that none of the substances were illegal, and returned everything. We apologized to the camper about the inconvenience, but explained that these actions are part of the camp’s policies”.

In my time at the HATC, I have witnessed over five random visits from WADA to test athletes staying at the camp. Normally the camp’s security bars visitors access until the person they are looking for arrives at the gate. However, WADA is always given access into the camp, even if the camper is not present. They are taken by security directly into the rooms of the athletes, and if the room is locked, security opens the door. There is even a notice inside the security office making it clear that WADA officials are to be allowed inside the HATC and escorted to wherever they need to go. In all of these random visits, no athlete has failed a drug test.

It has been over four months since I have arrived at Lornah Kiplagat’s training center, and everything I have witnessed suggests that this camp is committed to anti-doping policies and actions. The athletes I have spoken to over breakfast and dinner, during runs and inside the gym, consistently praise the camp and its commitment to compliance with WADA and international anti-doping laws. Doping is always a hot topic inside the dining hall and lounge, and the campers by and large have no sympathy with athletes that elect to dope. In fact, the community of athletes this camp attracts would be more than willing to blow the whistle on anyone or anything they see associated with doping. (It’s fair to say that the Letsrun faithful frequent the HATC). This attitude, coupled with the camp’s policies, would make it nearly impossible for drug use to exist within the walls of the HATC.

That is why I was so shocked, (and motivated to write this letter) by this latest ARD documentary investigating performance enhancing drug use in Kenya. It specifically implicates the HATC, reporting that PED use is rampant inside the camp, and that its members have explicit knowledge of the Kenyan underground doping scene. These findings were so shocking that I decided to conduct my own investigation to find out the truth behind these allegations. What I discovered was what I expected; these individuals: Hajo Seppelt, Florian Riesewieck, Thomas McDonald, and Frederick Nkoyon, fabricated a story in hopes to create a sensational response within the track and field world a mere month before the summer Olympics. And unlike the yellow journalists who created this story, I can back up my claim with concrete evidence:

In this short documentary, the narrator explains how his team conducted an undercover investigation inside the HATC. He claims that this investigation found illegal substances inside the rooms of athletes staying at the HATC, found EPO inside one of the camp’s trash cans, introduces a Kenyan man who supposedly paces European athletes and has extensive knowledge of how to buy PED’s in Eldoret, and interviews two doctors working around Eldoret that have injected roughly 50 athletes with EPO and have ways of beating the testing for it.

Let me begin by identifying the people involved in the filming of this report. The HATC camp keeps records of every person who books with them and takes copies of their passports to give to WADA if need be, so it was easy to discover the people involved in this documentary. The video explains at 1:30 that a reporter from the “Sunday Times” posed as an athlete and booked a room at the camp. From the camp’s records I was able to determine that this “undercover reporter” is named Thomas Joseph McDonald. He stayed at the HATC from January 9th-31st of this year in room number six. Apparently McDonald did a poor job pretending to be an athlete, as the staff I spoke to claims he never ran or ate while staying at the camp. Instead, he spent much of his time frequenting Eldoret, and because of “his suspicious activity” says Richard Mukche, was denied an extension to his booking.

The video also claims, at 2:31, that Thomas met a “Kenyan Pacer” that trains with European Athletes. This pacer is named Frederick Lemishen Nkoyon. Curiously, Frederick arrived the same day as Thomas to the camp and they booked the same room (6) together. He stayed at the HATC for a single night. Both Thomas and Frederick had their booking paid for by a David Collins, an editor for the Sunday Times. The third member of the investigation squad was a Florian Riesewieck, who arrived at the camp much later, booking room number three on April 9th, 2016. He stayed for only one day. The camp’s owner later discovered, through Florian’s copied passport that Riesewieck works for German yellow journalist Hajo Seppelt.

There are a few pieces of evidence that make it clear that this documentary has fabricated a story in regards to the HATC. The first comes at 1:30, which shows the camp’s director Richard Mukche wearing a red and gold tee shirt with African print and greeting “the agent from the Sunday Times”. You can then see the Richard walking the agent to his room. Just before the video cuts away at 1:39, you can see a red fire extinguisher and green drainage pipe next to the opening to the door. This is room number 3, the same room that Florian Riesewieck booked. The maroon and gold shirt the camp director was wearing is part of Lornah Kiplagat’s new sports apparel line, and that particular color scheme was not given to the camp until March. This means the hidden camera videos were taken not by Thomas “The agent for the Sunday Times”, but by Florian in April.

The video goes on to say that, “The agent takes a look around, again and again finding medication…” In this segment you can see that the agent is unlocking a door with a key. Like any hotel, keys at the HATC are only given to the person who booked the room, and come with explicit instructions not be shared. The room being “broken into” also has a broken door handle. Interestingly enough, the only room at the camp with a broken door handle is room #3, the same room Florian booked. This means that the “medication” found within the room was in fact medication that Florian planted within his own room. In short, the documentary’s scene from 1:48 to 2:04 was staged.

This fabrication pattern continues with the claim that the reporting team, “Meet(s) up with a pace maker, a pace maker for European athletes in Kenya, their training partner.” I know this “pace maker” to be Fredrick Nkoyon. I also asked my contacts around Iten, over a dozen Kenyan athletes and “pacemakers” if they have ever heard of the man? Unanimously they claimed that he was not an elite athlete. Rather, he is a Maasai, and a struggling runner that often badgers the top athletes in the area for assistance.

The foreign athletes that I have spoken to who have frequented the HATC during January of this year also remember "Freddy". They claim he was was largely a pest, but recognized how the man was struggling with poverty and was distressed. My friend, Timothy Limo, who lives at the HATC, says that Frederick was causing trouble during his time around Iten, “He would go out to the road in the morning he was here and try to join the British team when they trained, asking if they would pay him to pace for them. He is trouble man, the guy is desperate for money.” All the athletes of Iten maintain that the man is an opportunist, not a true athlete.

The fact that Fredrick’s stay at the camp was paid for by Florian and his team strongly suggests collusion. At 2:53 in the video, the narrator explains how Fredrick, “Takes them on a shopping spree, to a pharmacist”. There they buy EPO, the same EPO the video allegedly claims their agent found in one of the HATC trash cans. (2:10-2:19). We can safely assume that the picture shown in the documentary of opened boxes of EPO are the same two boxes purchased by Fredrick down in Eldoret, shown at (3:22). The documentary is extremely vague when explaining how its agent discovered EPO in one of the trash bins, switching to photographs instead of hidden camera and failing to show any evidence that those EPO boxes were taken out of the HATC trash can, (like it does with the EPO bought by Fredrick). It is, however, important to note that room #6, the same room that Thomas and Fredrick shared when booking at the HATC, is only a door down from the photographed trash bin. This green trash can is always lidless and never has a bag in it, meaning that any trash thrown in there is easily visible to a passerby. Campers do their laundry where the trash bin is located, and I have often complained about the smell while hanging up running shorts on the close lines next to the trash can. It’s improbable that someone would be reckless enough to just throw two boxes of EPO into that public trash can, but highly likely that two corrupt journalist could take a substance they bought in Eldoret and claim to have found it in the bin outside their room. Also, given that the camp’s staff routinely checks the contents of the rooms and trash cans, like it did in the 2015 incident, it’s obvious that this was once again a staged event used to fabricate a biased story.

The remaining minutes of the documentary takes its audience through a series of cryptic and confusing conversations, including one with an alleged Kenyan Olympic coach and two Kenyan doctors. Their statements are chilling, in that they claim many athletes, both local and abroad, have used performance enhancing drugs. I cannot speak with any certainty whether these statements are authentic.

As I mentioned at the start of this letter, doping is a problem all over the world, and Kenya is no exception. What I do know is that both of these doctors were arrested before the documentary even aired, proving that this country is committed to fight against drug abuse in athletics. It is a fight that is both unfortunate and necessary, and its outcome will determine the future of this sport I love. Although my naive notions regarding international athletics have largely been shaken over the past four months, I am encouraged by the numerous athletes, agents, coaches and authority figures that have stressed to me their commitment to fighting for a clean sport.

Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Camp is likewise one of the bulwarks that anti-doping efforts can rely on. But this war on doping will never be won by irresponsible, slanderous or yellow journalism. Whatever our role is within this sport, we must commit to fulfilling it ethically and responsibly. This ARD documentary may have had good intentions, but its reckless and fraudulent techniques will only serve to hurt the people invested in cleaning up athletics, and harm the global movement towards a clean sport. These reporters should just stick to fiction, because evidently the truth is beyond their comprehension.

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