Geopolitics

Inside The Doping Crisis Facing Kenya’​s Legendary Runners

A visit to Kenya's training site after media revelations about performance-enhancing drugs cast a pall over the country's storied long-distance running team.

Runners training in Iten, Kenya
Runners training in Iten, Kenya
Bruno Meyerfeld

ITEN â€" On the eve of their departure for this week's Athletics World Championships in Beijing, Kenya's marathon runners were gathered for a goodbye luncheon organized by the local county governor. A prayer is offered. "Lord, be proud of our athletes."

The event takes place in the mountain hotel that hosted the seven champions during their training in the town of Iten, long the hub of Kenya's legendary long-distance running world. Electric cables hang from the ceiling of the dining room, which is still in the process of being painted. Outside is a red clay running track, with a few motorcycles and passing runners.

The athletes are asked to say a few words. They stand up, arms crossed, revealing with extreme timidity their long, strong legs, murmuring their names without a smile, looking lost. Mark Korir, the winner of April's Paris Marathon, sitting with his back against the wall, barely dares to stand up. Helah Kiprop, who won the 2014 Seoul Marathon, motionless on her chair, looks like she’s facing trial â€" her magic feet, in simple white flip-flops, already seem to want to escape through the exit.

This should have been an occasion for smiles and good cheer. Instead the atmosphere is all gloom. We had already been warned that the team would not talk to the international press. Dennis Kimetto, the world’s fastest marathon runner, isn’t even here. The interview that had been planned was canceled at the last minute.

The problem â€" the subject dominating everyone’s silent thoughts â€" is the specter of doping, which has haunted the team since early August, when the German television network ARD and the British weekly The Sunday Times made bombshell revelations involving athletes from a number of countries, including Kenya.

The two news outlets had access to 12,359 blood tests, administered between 2001 and 2012 by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Out of a 5,000-athlete control group, 800 provided “abnormal” samples. Among them, 18 Kenyans.

Marathons, the main discipline for runners here in the Rift Valley of southwestern Kenya, is at heart of the case. A gray leather jacket on his shoulders, Wilson Kipsang, the team’s leader and brains, winner of the London and New York Marathons, finally agrees to say a few words. Like others in Kenyan athletics, he is squarely on the defensive.

"The doping scandal doesn’t affect us at all," he says. "We never talk about it. We have an excellent team, the best in years, and we will win the World Championships. The "revelations' are only rumors. Doping exists everywhere, not only in Kenya."

Running from poverty

At 5:45 a.m., it’s still pitch dark in Iten, 350 kilometers from the capital, Nairobi. At the entrance of the village, the street-wide red and green sign that reads “Welcome to Iten, Home of Champions" is barely visible. Suddenly, a group of about 40 young athletes appears. The car headlights make their multicolored sneakers and tracksuits shine. After a bit of stretching, the marathon runners begin to circle the track, with large strides between the podocarpus shrubs and the cornfields. The roosters are still asleep.

Elijah, 16, is one of the pre-dawn runners. He is training for long-distance races, between 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Like so many of the athletes here, he comes from a very poor family in a neighboring village and was sent to Iten "to become a champion." He lives in the small Lillies neighborhood, between the Olympic village and the slum, where men and boys from the region gather in small sheet metal houses, train together, share advice and success.

“My family sends me 100 shillings (just under 1 euro) per month for supplies,” the teenager explains. That isn't enough for Elijah to buy himself a second pair of sneakes. The ones he wears now are already covered in holes. “I train three times a day,” he says. “The tracks are full of stones. It's not always easy.”

Elijah says he doesn't take performance enhancing drugs. Nor, he insists categorically, has he seen anyone else take them. “Besides, it’s bad for you and against the values of sport," he says. "To those who think about it, I say: train more.”

And yet in the past three years, more than 35 Kenyan athletes, including Rita Jeptoo, the three-time winner of the Boston Marathon, have been knocked off the podium, crossed off by the IAAF or suspended by the Kenyan federation.

Far from prying eyes, on a road outside the village, in a car with closed, tinted windows, we meet Peter Kibet, an investigative journalist specialized in doping. A group of six runners passes by with small strides, sweat on their foreheads. “Out of the six, at least one or two dope,” says Kibet. “I could even tell you which ones, just by the way they are running.”

Kibet continues: “I’ve never believed that athletes could run a marathon in just two hours. For me, it’s physically impossible. A world record used to hold for 10 years. But since 2007, it’s broken every two years, almost every time by Kenyans, while the training conditions in Iten haven’t changed since the 1980s.”

Done deal

It's true that the region’s running tracks have never really been modified, and are used just as much by cows and goats as by distance runners. What has changed is the increased availability of Erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that spurs red blood cell production. “It’s very common," says Kibet. "Between 30% and 40% of athletes here dope."

Demand for the product is high. “At least two runners came to see me every day to ask me for EPO,” says Eunice, who worked in a public hospital in Eldoret, Kenya's fifth largest city. “They faked stomach or headaches and remained very vague, in order to be sent to the lab for examination, where they would find a willing listener …” In half an hour, for a 1,000 euros or more, a deal was made. And the race won.

In Iten, all roads lead to the Kamariny stadium. Every day, hundreds of runners come here for their interval training, alternating semi-sprints, small strides and deserved rest, between the sheep surrounding the worn blue podium.

On the grassy ground, in the middle of the arena, we come across a short man, his cheeks reddened by the sun, a woolly sweater and a baseball cap on his head. Born in 1949, Brother Colm O’Connell arrived in the Rift Valley almost 40 years ago. This Irish missionary who became coach, including for David Rudisha, the 800-meter Olympic champion at the 2012 games in London, has a decades-long relationship with Kenyan athletics. The nation's athletics system that dominated world long-distance running is now threatened to its very core by doping.

“It’s terrible, but the slightest unusual performance is now seen as suspicious,” says Bro Colm, as he's known. The coach's young athletes extend their strides. One minute for 400 meters. It’s good. Too good?

"We can’t control every single one of their moves," he says. "The truth is that we lack coaches here. That’s the real problem! There aren’t even five of us in Iten, all foreigners. We need more supervision. These young athletes are poorly educated. They come from very poor villages. They’re very vulnerable."

Fall from grace

It's evening, and darkness has returned in Iten. The last runners head home, a few dozen kilometers more for their sneakers. This is when Ronald Kipchumba Rutto agreed to meet us. The athlete seems worried, glancing left and right as we are introduced.

A short time ago, Rutto was still one the great hopes of his generation. “From 2004 to 2009, I was among the world’s greatest,” he says. “In Frankfurt, I ran the marathon in 2 hours and 9 minutes. When you reach this stage, under 2 hours and 10 minutes, money starts flowing in, sponsors put on pressure, so does the federation.”

After he reached the top, Rutto became afraid his level would drop. He chose to start doping. After a positive EPO control in 2012 after a marathon, he was suspended for two years. “I was convinced by a friend,” he now admits. “I needed money for my family that stayed in the village. An average marathon brings in $10,000 to $12,000, not counting money from sponsors.”

Rutto became an outcast. His coach left him, as did his manager and friends. “My wife left with my child, whom I haven’t seen since. Nobody wants to employ me or lend me money,” he says. The runner had to return to work in the fields. Any regrets? Rutto laughs. “I was conned. I didn’t think I’d be checked. But I don’t feel guilty. I had to feed my family.”

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Kayhan-London

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.

• Aye aye, CAP'n: HAPPY CAPS LOCK DAY, FOLKS!

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.

👮🎮  IN OTHER NEWS

Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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