Doping allegations come at worst time for international athletics

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

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.


The Russians, given their utter dominance in a range of events and seemingly endless talent, were always somewhat questionable: for the Kenyans, many of us had hoped, perhaps nature was playing a greater part. Instead, with the exception of the already dubious Russian success stories, only Kenya comes out worse: it’s reported Kenya has contributed 77 of the abnormal test results, more than one in 10 of the country’s total tests. Worse still, 18 of the medals won by Kenya at the Olympics and World Championships during the 2001-2012 period were won by the athletes who, at some point in their career, provided these suspicious results.

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.”


If all the Kenyan performances in Beijing later this month will be open to suspicion, so too will the Russians’. Although that’s not news to anyone; whatever about the IAAF claims the data within these blood data samples offer no direct evidence of doping, they’ve already followed up several blood samples of Russian race walkers since the 2012 Olympics in London.

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.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics