Pity we're distracted by talk of doping and fixing
ATHLETICS:There is an enduring inspiration provided by the majority of Kenya’s distance runners, but that’s not where our focus is at the moment
WHAT HAPPENED at the London Olympics was, in their own words, “a fiasco”. Then they were hit with allegations of widespread doping. Now, it seems, they’re being accused of race fixing – and that’s before they start to deal with the apparently severe tax arrears.
And we think Irish athletics has got problems.
So what is going on with the Kenyan distance runners, their all-conquering dominance so often held up as the model for the rest of the world?
Well, you know what they say about absolute power – although it’s probably not corruption that’s at play here as much as some good, old-fashioned greed, and a truth that lies somewhere between fact and fiction.
Not many countries came away from London wondering what went wrong after winning “only” two gold medals, four silvers, and five bronze – but Kenya’s Minister for Sport, Paul Otuoma, promptly demanded an explanation: “The performance was terrible,” he said, “a fiasco. I want a thorough audit of all sections so that we implement the recommendations and begin work for Rio 2016, now.”
Indeed, by Kenyan standards it was pretty shocking. Ezekiel Kemboi, inevitably, won the 3,000 metres steeplechase, and David Rudisha was a class apart in the 800 metres, yet several other gold medal hopefuls fell hopelessly short. In the end, Kenya finished 28th on the overall medal table, 15 places down on Beijing four years ago, where they finished 13th, with six gold medals, four silvers and four bronze.
Initial explanations were whimsical.
Kip Keino, head of Kenya’s Olympic Committee, suggested maybe too many runners timed their training poorly, or else poorly acclimatised to the British summer.
Head athletics coach Julius Kirwa then suggested the problem was allowing so many foreign runners to train in Kenya, who aren’t just benefitting from their unique training environment, but probably stealing Kenyan tactics, too.
“We should protect our own, by restricting others from invading our territory,” he said, citing the examples of Britain’s double Olympic champion Mo Farah, a frequent visitor to the high altitude training camps in Iten, and Olympic marathon winner Stephen Kiprotich, who at age 17 moved from Uganda to Eldoret to train with the Kenyans, then coolly beat the best of them when it came to the London showdown.
That hardly explains it either. As special a place as Kenya is to train – and trust me, running at 8,000-feet on the edge of the Great Rift Valley does make a major difference – Farah spends more time training in the US than Kenya, and Kiprotich didn’t so much out-run the Kenyans in London as out-smart them, their top contenders clearly burnt from chasing the big money at the big city marathons earlier in the year.
Anyway, that debate was soon replaced by a more damning one, as the Kenyan athletics federation found itself addressing some rather smoking allegations of widespread doping, following an undercover sting by German reporter Hajo Seppelt.
You know what they say about smoke, although these allegations actually appear more faint than fiery: Seppelt reportedly spent months in Kenya earlier this year, posing as a sports agent, where he claims to have found several doctors not only willing to provide doping products such as EPO, but who admitted to already providing them to Kenyan runners.
Only when Seppelt aired his findings on German TV and radio last month did the Kenyan Athletics association come out fighting, or rather passively defending: “Kenyans are usually under a microscope for the good performance internationally and for credibility, we have to ensure that anti-doping measures are in place to avoid being suspected,” said Isaiah Kiplagat, chairman of Athletics Kenya. “We are now working with the Kenya Police and World Anti Doping Agency (Wada) to have the culprits arrested for that criminal act.”