Kenya has always been known for the prowess its runners showcase on the field and track. But the world questioned their talent, and the country’s reputation, when Mathew Kisorio and 19 other high profile runners were found guilty of doping By Anthony Aisi and Eric Akasa
Since the 1960s, Kenya has consistently had more record holders and Olympic medalists in long distance running than any other country.
Red dust swirls around Mathew Kisorio’s feet as they strike the ground. Sweat is plunging down his face and darkening the grey T-shirt he is wearing. Although this is his seventh lap around the expansive field, his breathing is steady, steps are nimble and eyes focused in front of him. For six years, while based in Nairobi, everyday Kisorio would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and, after having breakfast, head out to the track with his coach Claudio Berardelli to run 15 miles.
This is how Kenya’s former world cross country team captain began his mornings until 2012 when he tested positive for using performance enhancing drugs. The charges headlined local and international news, as Kisorio became one of the country’s most high-profile athletes to test positive for using steroids. Not only was he banned from competing but his coach and his agent severed all ties; his fellow competitors wanted nothing to do with him; and he was forced to give back the KSH 50 million he had earned over his career.
Since the 25 year old’s suspension from competing two years ago, 19 more Kenyan runners have been accused of doping, raising a number of questions about the country’s most respected sport. Is Kisorio’s story representative of the larger running culture? Will Kenya be able to regain its reputation as the world’s fastest country?
Running into History
Since the 1960s, Kenya has consistently had more record holders and Olympic medalists in long distance running than any other country. The high altitude training and insatiable thirst for winning has catapulted its athletes to break world records. Charles Kipkoech, who has been an athletic coach for the past 15 years, explains how Kenyan athletes have managed to become so fast: Per week his male athletes run 140 miles, while females in the senior women’s team run between 90 and 100 miles. Those starting out professionally – most of who are around 17 years – average 10 miles a day. During their weekly training, they run up the hills in his training camp in Eldoret and intersperse this with workouts such as crunches, push ups and squats along the terrain which has an elevation of about 6,500 feet.
Kipkoech tells me that other coaches use similar training methods with their runners. And the training paid off at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games in June this year as the country topped the athletic table with 23 medals. So far, between both indoor and outdoor races, Kenyan male runners hold 16 world records while female runners have seven. None of the 20 who failed the drug test attended the Games. “The only way to win in athletics is by training hard,” Kipkoech says. There are no shortcuts and talent alone can’t bring one medals. “It is just sad that an athlete like Kisorio should decide to use drugs. It is as if his case opened a dam and all of a sudden more athletes started doping. Once they walk into my training camp, I tell runners that if they ever think of doping they should walk out before wasting my time, and theirs.”
After the string of positive tests in the country, Athletics Kenya (AK), the track and field governing body, tried to keep the story quiet – Kenya, after all, is meant to be the trail blazer when it comes to track and field races and these charges would affect how the world views athletes from the country. But after a year of not addressing growing concerns, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) stepped in in February 2014, forcing the athletic body to take action.
The Rise and Fall of Champions
For Kisorio, running is in his blood. His father was the late Some Muge, the first Kenyan to win a medal at the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Cross Country Championships in 1983, and Peter Kimeli, winner of the Brighton and Paris Marathons in 2012 and 2013, respectively, is his brother. While his natural-born talent certainly created opportunities, it also carried pressure to perform — which Kisorio did.
In his first international race in March 2007, he won the bronze medal in the junior World Cross Country Championships. Several months later, Kisorio, competing in races that were not even his strongest, won both the 5,000m and 10,000m at the African Junior Championships.
In 2008 at the World Junior Championships in Germany, he won the silver medal when he clocked in 13:11.57 minutes during the 5,000m race. Two years later Kisorio made his road-running debut at the Porto Half Marathon in Portugal. That’s when he made the decision to make this event his primary one. In September 2011 during the Philadelphia Half Marathon, Kisorio clocked 58:46 and broke the two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Haile Gebrselassie’s all-corners record. That same year, he was part of the team that won the IAAF World Cross Country Championships gold medal. And in February 2012, just months before the suspension, he won the Kagawa Muragame Half Marathon in Japan.
No matter how many competitions he dominated, though, Kisorio was never satisfied. But his aspirations vanished when he tested positive for steroids during the 2012 National Championships. “There was no way I could deny the charges,” he says, sitting on the lush grass next to the track he had just been running. “I had trained to break the world record for the half marathon and 10,000m race, but I didn’t get the chance.” Kisorio’s pressure to perform wasn’t just a product of family legacy: Sponsors, managers and trainers put their hopes in aspiring athletes, while the public scrutiny they face these days can be overwhelming. Then, of course, there is the allure of fame. Competitors like Usain Bolt have become international stars. But for runners who come from poverty, the responsibility to feed their families can be the most compelling reason of all to do whatever it takes to win.
Thirty year old Rael Kiyara was also banned from athletics when she was found guilty of doping. Growing up, her father owned a small farm where he grew maize which he sold to put Kiyara and her seven siblings through school. Unfortunately, her father could not afford to put her through college once she finished high school so, in 2006, Kiyara turned running, which had been a hobby, into a career when she joined Coach Julius Kemboi’s training camp in Iten with hopes of competing in international races.
Kiyara was a natural. Her debut race was remarkable as she won the bronze medal at the 2007 Dublin marathon. Defeating Derartu Tulu, the four-time gold medalist, Kiyara won the 2008 Madrid marathon and her performance kept getting better as her finishing time kept improving. Her next race saw her break her personal best time when she won the Graz marathon in 2:33:04. Kiyara also broke another course record when she won the Maratona di Sant’Antonio in Padua in 2:30:19. But the athlete was not done yet. In 2010, she broke the women’s race record during the Europe marathon with a time of 2:34:28. And, even though she didn’t win a medal during the Eindhoven marathon, she shaved nearly five minutes from her personal best time and placed in fourth with a time of 2:25:23.
Kiyara became the bread winner with her first international win. The responsibility of raising her siblings shifted to her, even though her father was still farming. “The playing ground is not level anymore so you have to do whatever it takes to make it so,” an unrepentant Kiyara says. Kiyara also reveals that it is especially hard to prove doping amongst the women since most will claim that they did so unknowingly as the fertility drugs they were using contained the banned substance. The thought of winning millions of shillings at the end of a race, especially for someone like Kiyara who comes from a humble background, made her desperate to try anything as long as it would ensure she won. And, this desperation is what led Kiyara to use norandrosterone, an anabolic steroid.
“You want to break that world record,” says Kisorio who was also using norandrosterone. “When all that is over you want to be remembered for the performance you put on.” Kisorio’s mother raised him and his six siblings on her own after the sudden death of his father in 1997. The responsibility of financially taking care of the family fell on him though, when he became a professional athlete – something he was unable to do after having to return all of his prize money. With a lack of motivation and a desire to escape the public spotlight, Kisorio quit athletics after his suspension and returned to his home in Eldoret, where he became a police officer. “At the [police] station, I was busy during the day doing paperwork and going on patrol,” he says. “This helped take my mind off athletics. It made me happy to serve as an officer.”
Meanwhile, Kisorio’s younger brothers, Kimeli, the 2013 Paris Marathon winner, and Nicholas Kipchirchir, the 2013 Udine Half Marathon Bronze medalist, stepped into the role of breadwinners as cash is one of the perks that come with winning international races. But even though the two are successful athletes in their own rights, they also received backlash from their brother’s critics. “I was also ostracised,” Kimeli says.“No one came near me during training. ‘If your brother is doing drugs then you too also have to be using them’ some accused me.”
Fighting the Problem
Performance enhancers have been around since the dawn of competitive sport, dating back to the first Olympic Games in Greece from 776 to 393 BC. The word doping actually originates from a Dutch opium juice called ‘doop’ that the Greeks used to drink.
Then beginning in the early 1900s athletes began using mixtures of heroine, strychnine, caffeine and cocaine. In 1928, the IAAF became the first body to ban doping even though no tests were performed that year. The invention of synthetic hormones in the 1930s only magnified the problem by giving users an even greater advantage. Dutch cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen, who collapsed and fractured his skull during the 1960 Olympic Games, was the first athlete to die from a doping overdose. His autopsy revealed traces of the amphetamine Orcinol, which can cause a cerebrovascular disorder. This disorder affected the blood flow to his brain and caused him to collapse. Jensen’s death spurred the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to start testing athletes for enhancement drugs in 1966. But again it took another tragic death, this one of Tom Simpson during the 1967 Tour de France, to prompt a majority of athletic bodies across the globe to take the problem seriously. Even then though, performance enhancing remained prevalent, as people were reminded again during the 1988 Olympics when Ben Johnson, the 100m gold medalist, tested positive for stanzol, an anabolic steroid. And, since then, according to the Olympic Broadcasting Services, 52 more Olympians have been found guilty of doping.
In the nineties, more effective methods of drug testing were introduced, leading to a drop in the use of illegal substances. But with advances in science came new means of cheating, like blood doping, where athletes use naturally produced hormones to increase the number of red blood cells, which promotes oxygen flow to enhance endurance. So beginning in March 2004 the IAAF demanded that every country whose athletes compete internationally have a fully functioning antiantidoping agency that conducts testing.
Professor Noni Wekesa, chairman of the commission selected by Athletics Kenya (AK) to look into the rising cases of doping , had to stop the probe because of shortageof funds.
Kenya adhered to IAAF’s regulations, but it seems that athletes took advantage of AK’s response which, at first, was to deny allegations that Kenyan runners had been found with performance-enhancing drugs in their systems. In the last two decades, 20 of the 37 doping cases that have emerged amongst Kenyan runners occurred in the past year,” Ogutu Okello* an official at Riadha House revealed. “But, even with a growing list of names, AK still didn’t take action and this reluctance to take action against the athletes led to the upsurge of doping cases.” Athletics, particularly running, is a source of national pride: Kenya is infamous for both its record-breaking sprinters and marathoners. But now there is a shadow of doubt cast over the country’s accomplishments. WADA, finally getting frustrated at how Kenya was handling the mounting doping cases, stepped in. In his report at the WADA conference held in March in South Africa this year, Rodney Swiggler, the organisation’s director in Africa stated that “We have been extremely patient. Wherever these things happen, it’s our role to go in there and ask what is wrong and why people are not complying with the code,” after naming Kenya and Jamaica as the countries that have shown a rise in doping cases in the past year.
After being put on the spot by WADA, AK decided to address the problem more effectively. It appointed a commission to look into the charges and made plans to build a drug-testing centre and to utilise what is called the Athletic Biological Passport, an electronic document that contains an athlete’s performance history. The centre is useful because if an athlete’s markers change dramatically it raises a red flag for authorities. The centre should, at the moment, be up and running, but as of yet construction hasn’t even begun. In the meantime, AK will continue using the medical staff it always has to test athletes, even though its equipment isn’t as top notch as what you’d find in a testing centre. “The delay is in part a result of foot-dragging,” says Evans Bosire, head of public relations at AK. “But there is also an ongoing turf war between the IAAF and Kenyan officials, who are reluctant to hand over control of testing to outsiders.”
Professor of Law Moni Wekesa, chair of the commission appointed by AK and an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, places the blame for the drugging upsurge on the athletes’ agents. “We have left our athletes in the hands of foreigners who have free reign over the athletes when it comes to international competitions, and any drugs we found to have been used by the athletes was through the influence of the agents,” he says. But, his commission never finished its enquiry as the KSH 4.5 million it had been allocated ran out halfway through its investigations. “Out of 2,000 athletes we were only able to get samples from 100 and the government has refused to allocate more money for us to bring this issue to a close once and for all.
This goes to show lack of commitment from the Kenyan government. Also, one of the biggest problems we still face is the lack of a WADA-accredited blood testing laboratory – the nearest facility is in South Africa, which makes collecting, transporting and analysing blood samples extremely difficult.
Doctor Al Gondi is one of the few sports physicians we have in the country. Sports medicine is fairly new in Kenya and Dr. Gondi has been practicing it for the past five years. “The anabolic drugs will promote muscle building but, they will make female athletes develop facial hair, infrequent or absent periods and deeper voices. The men might become impotent, bald or develop shrunken testicles.” The athletes may also develop heart and circulatory problems, and liver abnormalities. “But athletes disregard the effects as these drugs appeal to them because they make them train longer and harder and more frequently without feeling like they are overworking themselves,” the doctor says. Kiyara reveals that getting a hold of the drugs is not a hardship. “They are sold over the counter in many chemists across Eldoret,” she discloses. But, does she think of the side effects caused by them? “That never crossed my mind,” Kiyara says. “I never asked if it had side effects; all I was thinking of was being the first person to cut through the tape at the finish line.”
David Okeyo, AK’s secretary general says that the centre’s construction will begin soon, even though it’s unclear who will coordinate it. Regardless, though, he insists once new practices are implemented it will prove that Kenya’s athletic prowess is a result of natural talent — not performance enhancers. “Kisorio’s confession might have painted the athletes in bad light, but we refuse to buy that negativity. We pay tribute to our athletes, who have always done us proud.” But, it only takes one bad apple to make the whole sack rotten and this might be the case with athletics in Kenya. Poverty amongst the athletes who’d do anything to win millions, lack of commitment from the government and officials who refuse to acknowledge that there is a drug use problem means that the doping crisis isn’t going to be easily resolved. And for now, although WADA stepped in, there’s no finish line in sight as we still don’t have a testing centre.
Mathew Kisorio, one of Kenya’s most high-profile athletes banned from athletics in 2012 after being found guilty of doping is back in training in hopes of winning more medals – legitimately.
“There are so many who haven’t been caught just because they are clever in the way they use the drugs,” Kiyara divulges. Even though Kiyara’s ban was lifted in July, she hasn’t gone back to training. Having lost two years, she doesn’t think she’ll go back to running again as her strongest competitors are women in their early 20s. Kisorio’s suspension was also lifted in July, giving him the opportunity to redeem himself. While he resumed training even before the sentence expired, it will be a long road back to his previous form. “I have not lost hope,” he says.“I am now training and helping my brothers and sisters who are athletes, too. Don’t forget, sprinters like Tyson Gay and Justin Gatlin came back even better.” Even though he’s had numerous offers from agents, Kisorio has declined, focusing his energy toward getting back in shape. He does not deny that what he did was wrong, and surely he has suffered the consequences of his transgressions. But unlike the country’s athletic commission that remains in deadlock, Kisorio is moving forward. “I hope that others will learn from my mistakes,” he says. “I am coming back stronger than before.”