ITEN, Kenya (Reuters) - In Kenya’s running heartlands, a spate of failed drug tests has fueled fears the East African nation could follow Russia in being suspended from world athletics over doping violations, threatening the region’s economic lifeline.
The unprecedented move to suspend Russia from international track and field competitions follows an explosive report by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) alleging sweeping, state-sponsored use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Kenya’s lush Rift Valley region, famous for churning out champion runners from high-altitude training camps, was shaken by a warning from a top official that WADA was “seriously considering” banning Kenya for four years, including from 2016 Rio Olympics.
The threat is a major concern for a region where children still trudge to school barefoot and most hotels, large houses and flashy German cars belong to athletes who used running as a way out of poverty.
“If one athlete goes out there and wins, he brings the money and shares with the community. If that stops, life will be hard for most Kenyans here,” said Philip Singoei, 39, a two-time winner of the Eindhoven marathon who used his race winnings to pay school fees for nine siblings.
In the last few years, 33 Kenyan runners have failed drugs tests in WADA-accredited labs, including Rita Jeptoo, winner of Boston and Chicago Marathons. The world governing body, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), said two Kenyans failed doping tests in August at the Beijing world championships, where Kenya topped the medals table.
Earlier this year Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper and German broadcaster ARD/WDR said that athletes who won a fifth of Kenya’s 92 Olympic and world championship medals between 2001-2012 had suspicious blood results.
Only Russia had more medal-winning athletes with suspect blood tests, according to The Sunday Times, which said its report was based on leaked IAAF blood testing data.
The ARD/WDR documentary also alleged Athletics Kenya (AK) officials covered up failed tests, something the federation denies. “As Athletics Kenya our policy is very clear: we do not condone doping, we will not hide anyone who is caught doping,” said Isaac Mwangi, chief executive of AK.
Kenya’s Olympics committee chairman, Kipchoge Keino, met with WADA earlier this month and began sounding alarm bells at home, warning Kenya faced a suspension unless it tackled doping more seriously.
“WADA is seriously considering recommending Kenya for ban from all international competitions for failing to take action on doping matters,” said Keino, also a two-time Olympic champion.
“They think Kenya is sweeping doping issues under the carpet.”
In the training camps of Iten, a small town on a Rift Valley escarpment transformed into Kenya’s running mecca and a global athletics hub, many resent a cloud of suspicion that now hangs over all Kenyan runners.
“Our athletes are concerned, particularly the elite athletes, because they feel they are being tarnished with the same brush as those who tested positive,” said Colm O‘Connell, who coaches Kenya’s 800m Olympic champion David Rudisha.
In Iten, where a sign welcomes visitors to “The Home of Champions”, a possible ban evokes memories of a lean decade which saw Kenya boycott the 1976 and 1980 Olympics over apartheid in South Africa and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Fewer Kenyan youngsters took up the sport, training intensity waned, pay shrunk, and worst of all, at the subsequent 1984 Olympics Kenya won only one medal.
“It was a disaster,” said Mike Boit, winner of an 800m bronze in the 1972 Olympics. Boit was one of the favorites to scoop gold in 1976 and 1980 but could not compete.
In the run up to the 2012 Olympics, British, Chinese and Dutch national teams prepared for the London Olympics in Iten, where at dawn foreign runners can be seen trailing troops of Kenyans along sunkissed dirt-trails some 2,400m above sea level.
But there are fears if the doping crisis deepens, well-heeled foreign athletes will be put off Kenya. Jobs at hotels, camps and other athletics-based businesses could vanish.
Dick Pound, former WADA president who headed the commission investigating Russian doping, last week fingered Kenya as he warned doping in athletics was pervasive and the sport was facing a credibility crisis.
“Kenya has a real problem and have been very slow to acknowledge it,” Pound said. “Russia is not the only country and athletics is not the only sport with a doping problem.”
Most athletes blame corruption within AK for Kenya’s doping crisis.
For years Athletics Kenya dismissed claims of widespread doping as attempts by foreigners to destabilize the world’s greatest running nation. When Kenya’s government set up a task force to investigate doping, AK refused to cooperate.
Kenyan police have said they have questioned top AK officials about why they made personal withdrawals from a bank account where Nike had deposited sponsorship money. Athletes have filed angry petitions calling for the removal of AK management in the past few years.
Fed up with AK, star runners last year took matters into their own hands.
Dozens of runners formed the Professional Athletes Association of Kenya (PAAK) and with the help of WADA, they have been holding anti-doping seminars for runners and working with local chemists to prevent athletes using banned substances.
PAAK, in constant touch with WADA, has also set up an investigative unit to fight doping from within the athletics fraternity. PAAK’s runners-turned-investigators will soon dispatch a report to WADA, its president said.
“PAAK came about because AK failed to do their work. Athletes were trying to have their views heard (but) nobody would listen,” said Wilson Kipsang, PAAK president and two-time London Marathon winner.
AK has rejected claims of corruption, saying it was hamstrung by limited resources. “The country is doing the very best we can,” said Mwangi.
Kenya announced plans in September to criminalize doping and Mwangi added there are efforts to speed up that process. On Friday the government said the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK), first set up in 2013, would be beefed up. One government official said ADAK would be allocated some funding.
But many fear Kenya’s efforts could still prove too little, too late. Three-time world steeplechase champion Moses Kiptanui, and many others, questioned why Kenya’s anti-doping agency was left unfunded and effectively “toothless” for two years.
“The world is watching what we are doing. If we don’t act, then we have to blame ourselves tomorrow,” Kiptanui said.
Editing by Philippa Fletcher