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Why Kenyans go weak in the knees when doping temptation comes calling

Marathoner Rita Jeptoo (left) arrives at the Athletics Kenya offices in Nairobi for her doping case hearing on 15-01-2015.PHOTO/DENNIS OKEYO.

Sports is an important element of Kenyan culture. Various indigenous traditional sports have prevailed in Kenyan culture from its earliest history.

Some of the traditional games and sports prevalent in Kenya since antiquity have included wrestling, racing exercises, stick fights, hunting (using spears and arrows), board games, bull fighting and dances.

Today, the most popular sport in Kenya is football and athletics (track, field and other running events).

The latter can be given an upper hand compared to football since it has put the nation on the global map.

It is a tradition that Africa has been producing some very talented and world-class athletes but no other nation on the continent of Africa has the ability to produce champions year in and year out like Kenya.

Kenya has regularly produced Olympic and Commonwealth Games champions in various distance events, especially in 800m, 1,500m, 3,000m steeplechase, 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathons.

Kenyan athletes continue to dominate the world of distance running, although competition from Morocco and Ethiopia has reduced this supremacy.

Interestingly, runners from Kenya have run seven of the 10 fastest times for 26.2 miles. They have also been among the most consistent winners in the World Marathon Majors: Boston, New York, London, Berlin, Chicago and Tokyo.

Former 1500m Champion Asbel Kiprop trains near Kapsoya area in Eldoret Uasin Gishu County yesterday, after staying out for four years for the alleged doping ban by IAAF. January 29.2022. [Peter Ochieng, Standard]

The question of why Kenyans are so dominant in distance running has given rise to various explanations involving topography, or bone structure, or diet.

Some say that it is their genes, while others say that most of the runners are from the Rift Valley, a part of the country that is located at high altitude and this gives an advantage to the athletes over the rest but whatever the reasons may be, there is no denying that Kenyan athletes are no less than world-class.

However, all those theories and pride of Kenya is all about to be thrown away to the dustbin if the recent rising cases of doping is anything to go by.

Up to 30 elite Kenyan athletes have been suspended or banned from competing this year alone, raising fears among stakeholders that the vice was getting out of hand.

Kenya was placed in the top category of the World Anti-Doping Agency's compliance watch list in 2016.

Kenya seems to be earning reputation as a nation that produces more than its fair share of athletes who fail drugs tests.

John Ngugi, who won Olympic 5000m gold in Seoul a few months after former Boston marathon champion Cosmas Ndeti’s positive test, saw his career end after being slapped with a four-year ban in 1993 for refusing to take an out-of-competition test.

Lawrence Cherono, of Kenya, holds the trophy after winning the 123rd Boston Marathon, on Monday, April 15, 2019, in Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

Asbel Kiprop, the 2008 Olympic and three-time world 1500m champion, was given a four-year ban in 2019 after testing positive for Erythropoietin (EPO).

Wilson Kipsang, who set a world marathon record of 2:03:23 in 2013 and won the London Marathon twice, was banned in 2020 for whereabouts failures.

Rita Jeptoo, a multiple Chicago and Boston marathon winner, plus Jemima Sumgong, who won the London Marathon and Olympic title in 2016, were also banned for taking EPO.

Kenyan marathon runner Marius Kipserem is the latest to be punished for testing positive for a banned substance EPO.  Kipserem won the Rotterdam Marathon in 2016 and 2019, setting a Course Record in the latter, as well as the 2018 Abu Dhabi Marathon.

Former world youth champion Lilian Kasait who represented Kenya at the Tokyo Olympics was also suspended.

She is alleged to have tested positive for letrozole, a substance found in medicine used for treating and preventing breast cancer. 

Recently, two of the country’s top marathoners – Lawrence Cherono and Philemon Kacheran were provisionally suspended after testing positive for banned substances, as they prepared to fly the Kenyan flag at the World Championships and Commonwealth Games respectively. 

Other athletes who have been provisionally banned are: Mark Otieno Odhiambo, who is alleged to have tested positive for Methasterone, Vane Nyaboke Nyanamba (banned for testing positive for Norandrosterone), Tabitha Gichia Wambui (Norandrosterone) and Eglay Nafuna Nalyanya (Norandrosterone). 

This begs the question, why is doping on the rise when we have the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK)? What are they doing to save Kenya’s athletics reputation?

ADAK CEO Sarah Shibutse said they are concerned and are carrying out intense education, sensitisation and testing to uproot the problem before it becomes adverse.

Speaking last week, Shibutse said it is because of their intense rules and collaboration with the Athletes Integrity Unit (AIU) that they are trying to root out the doping menace as they advocate for clean sports.

Shibutse added that the two-year of Covid-19 might have led to the upsurge of doping cases in the country mainly attributed to the tough economic times and high level of competitiveness as athletes want to win at all costs with some forced to cheat.

“We had no sports during Covid-19 and our athletes sat around doing nothing and when resumption began fully from last year, we had a huge number of athletes hungry for victory and some of them want to win so much,” she said.

Lilian Kasait competes in women's 10km  race during the AK Cross Country Championships at Post Grounds. [Dennis Okeyo]

The ADAK CEO, however, said they are targeting to increase their surveillance by collaborating not only with medical officers, but also planning for a multi-agency collaboration.

“We want to work hand in hand with sports federations especially Athletics Kenya so that we can educate them on the substances to avoid,” said Shibutse.

“So far, we have partnered with KICD to capture aspects of anti-doping in the CBC Syllabus so as to educate the upcoming generation on the same,” added Shibutse, while advocating for more government funding to fight doping.

ADAK chairman Daniel Makdwallo said they want clinicians to be conversant with banned substances since they interact more with athletes.

“Clinical Officers play a crucial role in ensuring a doping free sport specifically when prescribing medication to athletes. It is therefore imperative that they understand Anti-Doping information as they practice,” said Makdwallo.

Athletics Kenya (AK) has also warned coaches and games teachers who condone doping.

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