Doping allegations come at worst time for international athletics

‘Sunday Times’ and ARD/WDR revelations show Russia and Kenya worst offenders

The investigative trail that ultimately led to what is being described as “the biggest leak of blood test data in sporting history” began in Kenya

The investigative trail that ultimately led to what is being described as “the biggest leak of blood test data in sporting history” began in Kenya

 

Even if the exact scale of the latest doping allegations that have further crippled the credibility of athletics may never be known, the sense of timing is more or less clear: it couldn’t have been any worse.

Less than three weeks before the World Athletics Championships get under way in Beijing at the Bird’s Nest, it feels as if the entire sport has been shaken to its foundation, perhaps irreparably so. And not just for the governing body, the IAAF.

“I think of the old phrase, ‘Tell me it isn’t true,’ ” said Brother Colm O’Connell, speaking to this newspaper last November, when detailed reports first emerged of alleged doping practices in Kenya. That, it seems, was only the beginning of the truth.

In his almost 40 years of coaching in Kenya, Brother O’Connell had never witnessed any firsthand evidence of doping: now, according to the joint investigation between German broadcaster ARD/WDR and the Sunday Times, there is increasingly damning evidence of it, not just in Kenya, but in Russia, the Ukraine, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, Greece – the countries that provided the majority of abnormal blood doping samples collected from 2001-2012.

Yet part of the disappointment here is that Kenya, certainly unlike Russia, was somehow deemed than all of this. Certainly not any more. The investigative trail that ultimately led to what is being described as “the biggest leak of blood test data in sporting history” began in Kenya, when Hajo Seppelt, the German TV documentary maker, first made some disturbing claims about Kenyan distance running.

Then, last year, Seppelt, aired his aired the one-hour documentary entitled Geheimsache Doping: Wie Russland seine Sieger macht, which translates as “top-secret doping: how Russia makes its winners”. Not long after that, a whistleblower provided him with the extraordinary list of 12,000 blood samples, from about 5,000 athletes, which contained not just worrying but dangerous evidence of blood-doping practises. The estimate, from those in the know, is that one-third of the medals won during that period are questionable, at best, on the basis on those samples.

The samples essentially took in the last three Olympics (Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, and London 2012), plus six World Athletics Championships (Edmonton 2001, Paris 2003, Helsinki 2005, Osaka 2007, Berlin 2009, and Daegu 2011). And it was during this period that Kenyan athletics begin to reach its zenith.

Questionable

Seppelt’s latest documentary, The Shadowy World of Athletics aired in Germany on Saturday night. It provided the background and basis for much of the data examined and further expanded on by the Sunday Times, but also provided some of the most disturbing evidence of all, including secretly filmed footage of so-called Kenyan doctors openly providing EPO and other illegal substances to local athletes.

There was also a devastating report on Kenyan marathon runner Geoffrey Tarno, who dropped dead inside the last two miles of the Eldoret marathon in October 2013; his death was attributed to a sudden blot clot association with EPO use. Tarno is now buried in the family plot.

“Like a lot of people, I would always have considered the elite Kenyan distance runners to be clean,” Brother Colm said at that time. “That image has been shattered. And as a coach, it definitely knocks a bit of the wind out of your sails. And once a country is being fingered, like Kenya now is, it’s very hard to shake it off. It can take years, or it might never be shaken off. That’s the sad part. The damage has been done.”

Suspicion

Indeed Rob Heffernan is still awaiting his possible upgrade to Olympic bronze, as the IAAF continues its appeal against the selective disqualification of results applied to the recent doping offences by Russian race walkers. One of these walkers, Sergey Kirdyapkin, won the 50km walk at the 2012 London Olympics, where Heffernan finished fourth: then, in January of this year, Kirdyapkin was one of six Russian race walkers banned simultaneously by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada) due to irregularities in their biological passports.

Yet Kirdyapkin’s ban only included periods from July 2009 to June 2012, and from October 2012 on, effectively suggesting he was somehow clean during the London Olympics. The IAAF (to its credit) did not accept this, and there is the expectation that Kirdyapkin’s results will be annulled. Already in line for a medal upgrade is Olive Loughnane, who originally won silver in the 20km walk at the World Championships in Berlin, where Olga Kaniskina won gold – although her retrospective ban, announced in January, also included the period during those 2009 World Championships.

In the meantime, Russia has decided against sending any walkers to the World Championships in Beijing for risk of further embarrassment. This then perhaps offers some hope Russia has already realised they can’t keep getting away with this. Seppelt, incidentally, also claims his investigations are not just limited to track and field, and has suggested doping in Russia extends far beyond athletics, and could possibly implicate soccer, swimming, cycling and most Winter Olympic sports (not surprising given Russia topped the medal table on home soil in Sochi, last year).

Beyond all this, perhaps the most worrying part of these latest allegations is that the IAAF can feel lucky they aren’t dealing with blood on their hands. This would appear to be the suggestion after the data was analysed by two leading antidoping experts, scientist Robin Parisotto and exercise physiologist Michael Ashenden.

Parisotto claimed he has “never seen such an alarmingly abnormal set of blood values. So many athletes appear to have doped with impunity, and it is damning that the IAAF appears to have idly sat by and let this happen.”

The only happy ending for now then is that not more athletes have died.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.