ITEN, Kenya (Reuters) - With limited resources to catch cheats, Kenya sees education as the best tool to fight doping as it comes to terms with the reality that performance enhancing drugs are threatening its reputation for producing world-class runners.
Kenya has suspended 14 athletes since the start of last year for doping amid a trickle of claims that cheating is widespread in the training camps dotted across its lush Rift Valley region.
While Kenyan officials stress none of those caught were top athletes, the controversy has cast a shadow over one of the world’s most successful running nations at a time athletics is reeling from high-profile doping scandals.
The run up to the Moscow World Championships has been overshadowed by failed drugs tests by American Tyson Gay and Jamaican sprinters Asafa Powell, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Sherone Simpson and multiple positive tests by Turkish athletes.
Kenyan officials say it is vital to stop doping in its tracks to ensure no Kenyan athlete of a similar caliber to Gay or Powell is lured into using performance enhancing drugs, something they fear could devastate the sport.
“We need to clean our own house,” running great Kipchoge Keino, Kenya’s National Olympic Committee chief, told Reuters in Eldoret in the Rift Valley.
“We need to educate our athletes. We need to sit down together and give them seminars so they can understand. We have to show them in practical terms that this is not the right way.”
In Iten, a small village at the heart of Kenya’s running revolution, athletes are reluctant to talk about doping with outsiders but the issue is a common topic of conversation among coaches, former runners and agents.
Brother Colm O’Connell, coach to Kenya’s Olympic champion and 800 meters world record holder David Rudisha, said the failed drugs tests by some Kenyan athletes had come as a total surprise and the suspension of Gay and the Jamaican sprinters had left a sour taste for the running community.
“With recent developments, we are in a very hazy situation about this whole drug situation,” said O’Connell, who has trained 25 world champions and five Olympic champions during his 37 years in Iten.
“But I think as a coach you have to somehow shut it out from what you’re trying do, otherwise you give up.”
Allegations that doping is widespread in Kenya were first aired by the German national television broadcaster ARD before last year’s London Olympic Games.
Kenyan officials were furious at first, saying the country was being defamed. But after months of denials and angry ripostes, they have started to acknowledge the problem.
“I think they’ve realized that this is an issue in Kenya. For a long time we kind of ignored the idea that it’s there,” O’Connell said, adding that the federation has to get on top of the doping in order to maintain its credibility.
While no one knows the scale of the doping problem in Kenya, critics say officials need to do more and point out that only one athlete from Ethiopia, Kenya’s neighbor and greatest rival, is serving a drugs ban. By contrast, eight Kenyans have been suspended in the last year alone, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).
IAAF figures released last month showed Kenyans were the world’s most tested athletes in 2012, followed by Russians and Americans, something Kenyan officials said was a byproduct of having the highest number of top athletes.
Moses Kiptanui, a three-times world 3,000 meters steeplechase champion, earlier this year became the first high-profile former Kenyan athlete to allege doping was widespread.
“When you talk to these runners, and I’ve talked to some of those who have been caught, they say ‘I’m not the only one’,” Kiptanui told Reuters in his home near the Ugandan border, reachable only by a sunkissed dirt road which pierces through lush maize plantations.
A wealthy businessman, Kiptanui last year stopped coaching to focus on his large dairy business.
He said several athletes have told him they can buy banned substances at chemist shops in the Rift Valley towns of Eldoret and Kapsabet.
One top foreign agent told Reuters how a low level athlete he did not represent phoned him for advice over what constitutes doping after a doctor from Eldoret offered to conduct a blood transfusion for him.
“There is an issue in Kenya where doctors and pharmacists see an opportunity to approach athletes or have athletes come in looking for vitamins and then they say, ‘look we can help you, we can give you this medication’ or ‘this will help you perform,” the agent said.
Both Kiptanui and the agent say the doping issue is confined to the minority but are adamant Athletics Kenya is not doing enough to educate or shield the runners, whose parents are often subsistence farmers and cannot afford to school them properly.
Athletics Kenya (AK) president Isaiah Kiplagat disclosed in May that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was concerned the government was not taking doping seriously and conceded Kenya’s credibility was being doubted in the athletics world.
However, Kenya’s ability to root out doping on its own is limited as the east African country does not have a single IAAF-certified drugs testing lab. All the blood samples taken in Nairobi are flown to Johannesburg, Barcelona or Paris for tests.
A new testing lab is planned in Eldoret but officials say that will be constructed by the IAAF and may take years. Kenya is also short of trained scientists, proper equipment and money.
“They don’t have the ability, the strength, the money. Most importantly, they don’t have the will. They just want to protect their seats,” Kiptanui said, echoing the thoughts of other coaches, agents and former runners who spoke to Reuters about doping.
While corruption accusations have dogged AK for years, its vice president David Okeyo said it was not fair to accuse the federation of being lackadaisical over doping.
“We have done a lot. The athletes that have really been found to be positive have been dealt with according to the rules,” Okeyo told Reuters over the telephone from Moscow.
“We deal with these issues when they come. But you cannot say there is a national issue concerning doping.”
AK last year promised to carry out an investigation into the sources of doping in Kenya but so far no agent or manager has been fingered. Only athletes who test positive, usually during competitions abroad, have been punished.
Okeyo said AK has been powerless to stop those inciting athletes to dope due to lack of evidence.
“This is like a court case, if you don’t have evidence, there is nothing you can do,” Okeyo said. “It can only come from athletes themselves.”
Editing by Rex Gowar