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Sonia O’Sullivan: Building back trust in Kenyan distance running will be a long journey

World Athletics Council stops short of outright ban, believing improved funding for testing is best solution

There had been some considerable rumbling in recent weeks around whether World Athletics would or needed to impose an outright ban on Kenya. Given the worrying rise in Kenyan doping cases this past year, 40 per cent of all positive tests globally, it would mean a ban on arguably the country’s biggest export – it’s best distance runners.

In the end World Athletics decided to give them another chance, association president Sebastian Coe telling a media briefing after Wednesday’s council meeting in Rome that “building back trust will be a long journey” after a “disfiguring period”, but that all the stakeholders were now aligned in coming together “to do everything we can to resolve this situation”.

Sebastian Coe also referenced a letter from the Kenyan sports ministry committing a further $5 million per year, for the next five years, to bolster anti-doping efforts in the country. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

There’s always been an emotional and romantic connection with Kenya, which has produced some of the very best cross-country runners, the best steeplechasers, and best marathoners down through the years. The tales of growing up in rural Kenya, running to school each day, fuelled on the natural diets and always the best vegetables and grains, very little processed foods, all never far from the soil they were grown in.


Like neighbours Ethiopia and more recently Uganda, there’s always been a fascination with the East African runners, living and training in the highlands, and the ease with which they glide across the ground.

I can recall the days spent in Teddington and Melbourne, training with some of the finest Kenyan athletes; Moses Kiptanui, William Tanui, Julius Kariuki, Daniel Komen, Sally Barsosio and many more. We ran together in the parks, at the track and travelled to races all over the world. Back then, in the early 1990s, Kim McDonald had one of the largest groups of Kenyan athletes and they would come and train in Teddington, all staying at a house on Park Road, just 400m from the gates of Bushy Park.

We all felt we could learn from the Kenyans. Train Hard, Win Easy, as the book said, but also living and eating simple so that nothing felt impossible.

That was nearly three decades ago, and how things have changed in that time. Now there are so many more Kenyan athletes it’s hard to keep track, new athletes turning up all the time, each one looking for a chance, an opportunity to hit the big time and earn a living.

It’s easy to see the attraction when you can win a prize in a small local race equivalent to a month’s salary for those just entering the job market in Kenya. There’s so much to attract athletes to train hard, travel the world and earn a living. With that comes competition, not just in the races, but just to get the opportunity to travel, to run a race and to get noticed.

With opportunity also come opportunists. I think this is the real problem for a lot of the athletes found doping in Kenya these days. Probably not just the athletes themselves, but others in their support team; coaches, family, training partners all looking to find a way to reap the greatest reward.

Not as many Kenyan athletes train outside of Kenya as they did in the 1990s. They like to stay and train at home, in the thin mountain air. Travel is not so difficult as it was in the early days either, visas and invitations are more accessible and athletes can travel direct to races, not needing to stay for lengthy periods at holding camps waiting for confirmations.

There is so much more knowledge available now to so many people, and I don’t believe that Kenya is in the same category as Russia, when they were banned from international competition for state-controlled doping programmes, starting in 2015.

Ironically, Russia is just about to be reinstated, next March, yet it’s still unclear how this ban will be lifted and it’s likely to come with a number of stipulations across a period of time.

Kenya currently has 55 named athletes banned and eight that are provisionally suspended. Kenya is currently a Category A country under Athletics Integrity Unit regulations, alongside Ethiopia, Belarus, Ukraine, Bahrain, Morocco and Nigeria. This means that athletes from each of these countries must all undergo three out-of-competition tests in the 10 months prior to a major competition (such as World Championships or Olympics) before they are allowed to compete.

This still leaves a number of athletes willing to risk cheating for other major international races, particularly road races and especially marathons where the prize purse is much greater and more accessible than all that is required to get close to the medals and rewards at World Championships and the Olympics.

The World Marathon Majors have always been very proactive in testing athletes that they invite to their events. Still, they are not immune to athletes winning the races, taking the money and further down the track testing positive.

Just this year,the World Marathon Majors significantly reduced their prize pool for winning the series from $250,000 to $50,000, but also sharing the same prize structure with the wheelchair racers. In a time when inflation is at an all-time high, and the prize money is reduced to one fifth, you have to believe that the inability to control the doping across such a large field of athletes is part of the reason for that reduced prize money.

As it stands more and more athletes are running faster, continually breaking records, many helped along by the constantly evolving shoe technology. Maybe this has also allowed some devious athletes and coaches to use other means to improve their performance and everyone still believes it’s all down to the shoes.

It also appears that the Athletics Integrity Unit is being as proactive as it can be, but there are limitations in some countries around testing, when others have been more able to enforce that bit more successfully.

The Kenyan government now realises the seriousness of what a ban on its greatest ambassadors will do to the country after two years of warnings and requirements in the doping regulation sector. Still more athletes are testing positive, some big athletes winning major races, which is not good for the reputation of the finest athletes, World and Olympic champions.

Kenya finished third on the athletics medal table at the Tokyo Olympics last year, and second at the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, this past summer. They may have been given another chance, although Coe is right about one thing: building back trust will be a long journey.