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Failing to update whereabouts leads to bans but Kenyans do it

Diana Kipyokei, 2021 Boston Marathon winner. [Reuters]

It is a little hard to pinpoint when, exactly, 2022 became the Year of ''Whereabouts Failures'' that adversely affected Kenyan athletes.

In 2020, former world marathon record holder Wilson Kipsang and 2016 Olympic 800m finalist Alfred Kipketer was provisionally suspended.

On July 23, 2017, the world 1500m champion Elijah Manangoi became the third global star to be banned. And it became clear that 2020 had turned out to be another year for whereabouts violations despite disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

That year, nine athletes from three countries (four Kenyans, three Americans, and two Bahrainis) had been provisionally suspended for whereabouts failures — by comparison, only two athletes were suspended for the same violation in 2018 and 2019 combined.

Of the nine, three have had their suspensions confirmed ranging from 18 months to four years. Kipsang’s suspension was lengthened after he was also convicted of tampering during his defense.

American sprinter Gabby Thomas is now free to compete after the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), which oversees doping cases for World Athletics, withdrew the charge against her in July. Kipketer, Manangoi and others remain in some stage of the appeal process: not convicted, but not yet able to compete again. 

Athletes competing at an international level are required to set aside one hour a day within which doping control officers can find them to take samples for testing. This means they must give details of where they will be over that time to enable the testers find them.

Usually, athletes are not notified of exactly which day the doping control officers will visit them, and in case of any emergency, an athlete must declare their unavailability three hours prior to the time they had earlier given. Should one fail to be available for testing after four attempts within 10 months they will be banned for four years.

Failure to meet these strict regulations has gotten some athletes into trouble.

One of the questions in Kenya, however, is whether the increased scrutiny is catching genuine cheats or clean athletes unaccustomed to dealing with the 'whereabouts system'.

Kenya’s doping problems are well-publicised — 46 Kenyans have been banned this year — so the former is obviously an option. But widespread out-of-competition testing is a relatively new development in Kenya, made possible by the establishment of the Wada lab in Nairobi in 2018.

Barnaba Korir, the Athletics Kenya executive member, said most of them are victims as a result of ignorance.

“Most of the athletes are not accustomed to this. So, we have engaged World Athletics on this. We had a meeting on Monday and discussed it in detail,” said Korir.

“We have decided to come up with a simple application that athletes will download on their mobile phones. We have engaged someone in the Kenya Literature Bureau to do the translation into Kiswahili. It’s a simple app. I think it will be easy for every athlete."

No nation has struggled with whereabouts failures more than Kenya, with Kenyan athletes registering almost as many whereabouts suspensions this year than the rest of the world. Test volume is certainly a factor. Kenyan athletes were responsible for 23 per cent of all out-of-competition samples collected in 2019 — almost double the next-closest country.

Manangoi claimed he was not trying to cover up doping.

The other athlete on the whereabouts list is distance runner Alex Oloitiptip, who registered his third whereabouts failure of 2019. Yet he was allowed to compete in the 10,000m final at Worlds on October 6 and was not provisionally suspended until March 17, 2020.

In Oloitiptip’s case, however, there was no athlete explanation to explore; he never offered one to the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU). Yet it still took the AIU 242 days to suspend him.

Between April 27, 2018, and May 17, 2019, Kipsang, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist and winner of five World Marathon Majors, missed four tests. Kipsang was provisionally suspended in January 2020 and appealed his suspension, but his appeal fell apart under close scrutiny.

Kipsang, a former world marathon record holder who is serving a four-year ban for failing to update his whereabouts, said there are many challenges that have led to the rise in the number of doping cases in Kenya.

"There is the issue of updating whereabouts. An athlete must be in constant communication with the person responsible for updating his whereabouts. The professional ones can update on their own. I don’t regret it because there was a mess up."

He narrates his experience.

“There was a time I put my slot at 10pm and they came on a Friday. And after some time, they decided to postpone it. They said it was too late in the night and then came on a later day. They came the following Monday, and then thereafter it was a missed test. The one which was postponed. It was very tricky. There is no sufficient awareness on this whereabouts issue," he said.

He added that while athletes should take responsibility, managers are not entirely blameless.

"Some athletes need quick money. The manager plays a big role. He wants the athlete to run very fast and get his 15 per cent and the doctor also ­­­­­­­­needs money; that’s around Sh300,000 or Sh200,000. The manager also wants you to run hard and make sure you make money. All these guys; managers, doctors and athletes, need money. They are part of that. We need to inform our athletes of the dangers of EPO or any other banned drug. Most athletes opt to go for small races to evade tests," he said.

For the EPO ban, Kipsang said, he is aware that an athlete cannot compete in the World Marathon Majors series –Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Chigaco, Berlin and Tokyo as well as the World Championships and Olympic Games.

Mathew Kisorio, the 2008 world under-20 5000m silver medalist, served a two-year ban for using a banned substance in 2012. By then he boasted an impressive 58.46 in the half marathon, where he stood as the third fastest Kenyan in 21km. In April, Kisorio was suspended for whereabouts failures.

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