Will Kenya make the running for the Olympics? Anti-doping ban looms

Kenya has until April 5 to comply with worldwide anti-doping standards. Kenya won 11 medals in the 2012 Olympic games, all from track and field.

Thomas Mukoya/Reuters/File
Kenya's athletes run during a training session in Nairobi, ahead of the 15th IAAF World Championships in Beijing in August 2015. Kenya faces a race against time to show the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) that it tackling cheating in athletics or it could face expulsion from major competitions, a regional anti-doping official has told the BBC.

Johanna Karienkei was glum as he exited the Swiss Embassy onto a quiet downtown street Monday.

His solemn mood wasn’t just because he needed more documents for his visa application to compete in next month's Geneva Half Marathon. A bigger worry was whether he would be excluded from the race.

For the past few years, Kenya’s renowned athletics program has been embroiled in a doping crisis that could see its athletes banned from international competitions. From large city marathons to world championship races, this could knock out some of the world's top ranked long-distance runners, including in the most prestigious event on the calendar: the 2016 Summer Olympics. Now Kenya is racing to comply with global standards before an April 5 deadline. 

“For young athletes like myself it's so frustrating,” says Mr. Karienkei, who is 25, of the potential ban. “It's like going to university for three years and then getting banned in the last year before final exams.” 

Rumors of doping among Kenyan athletes are not new, but a spike in violations in recent years, coupled with tougher international standards, has led the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to scrutinize Kenya's anti-doping agency and its practices. In the past three years alone, more than 40 athletes here have received doping bans.

After a damning government-commissioned report late last year, WADA opened an investigation into the Kenyan government's failure to fund its anti-doping agency and to toughen its laws. Kenya hopes that new measures like introducing new legislation that would make doping a criminal offense, will be enough to put the country in compliance with WADA by April 5. If not, the outlook will dim for athletes like Karienkei, who make a bulk of their living racing abroad.  

“It's a big risk if there’s a ban,” says Karienkei. “There are so many people who depend on running in Kenya." 

Kenyan runners are hardly alone. Last week, tennis player Maria Sharapova was provisionally banned from the sport, and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned Russian athletes from international competition last year amid allegations of widespread, state-sponsored doping.

“Sports are at a very fragile time because we've seen a huge amount of public uproar every time there’s a doping scandal,” says WADA spokesman Ben Nichols. “Kenya is renowned for its track and field prowess and their athletes are some of the top athletes in the world in those disciplines, so its absolutely key that a good system is in place.” 

But while the drafting of Kenya's anti-doping law signals progress, it has been marked by confusion and delays since the start – signifying a sluggishness that is emblematic of the hurdles Kenya faces, including widespread corruption.  

Rampant delays

Kenya missed one WADA deadline in February to pass legislation and allocate funding to the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK) to carry out necessary testing. ADAK was only established last year to comply with WADA, but even that was marred by delays.

Mr. Nichols says the delays are alarming, given the role athletics plays in the country. Despite assurances from Kenyan authorities, with less than three weeks to go, it is unclear whether the bill will be passed in time.

“We have pushed this as hard as we can,” he says.

Missing the deadline would not mean an automatic Olympic ban, but Sebastian Coe, the IAAF president, has stated his willingness to take drastic steps

“Yes, if it means pulling [Kenya] out of world championships or Olympic Games then we will have to do that,” he said last month.

Fighting corruption

Overcoming corruption will be ADAK’s biggest hurdle. 

In late November, three senior officials from Kenya’s governing athletic body were suspended for allegedly diverting a $500,000 commitment bonus from Nike, as well as hundreds of thousands of additional dollars meant for Kenyan athletes. And in February, two athletes facing doping bans accused the CEO of Athletics Kenya of soliciting almost $50,000 in bribes to reverse their bans. Mr. Mwangi has since been suspended pending an investigation. 

Kenyan athletes are growing inpatient: Last November, dozens stormed the athletics governing office to protest corruption and passivity in tackling the doping problem. At stake for them is access to money and a loss of national pride.

“For me it's my passion, its my career, my mind is just running,” says Mary Keitany, who won the New York City Marathon in 2014 and 2015 and hopes to compete in this year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “But it's also for my kids to stay well, I have to run for them.”

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