Michael Houston

Heartbreaks and "what ifs?" continue to dominate athletics, robbing athletes of the greatest moments of their careers, before they are awarded with a small consolation years later.

Corruption was rife for years in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), now known as World Athletics, with doping cover-ups tarnishing its legacy - particularly under the reign of Lamine Diack.

A 2015 leak of World Athletics' blood test records showed that between 2001 and 2012, one third of the medals won in endurance events at the World Championships and Olympic Games were claimed by those with suspicious drug test results, but the IAAF caught none of them.

Later, it was proven that Diack was involved in bribery related to doping by turning his head away from Russian positive tests, as well as receiving payments from marketing company International Sport and Leisure before a deal was signed with the IAAF.

Sebastian Coe inherited these issues and had been regarded as a continuation of the problems faced in the sport. He was the vice-president to Diack during the controversy, arousing suspicion that this would be more of the same when he defeated Ukrainian Sergey Bubka to become the new head of athletics.

Credit to him on the anti-doping front, as athletics has taken a harder stance on catching cheats during his tenure so far. 

Sebastian Coe became World Athletics President in 2015 ©Getty Images
Sebastian Coe became World Athletics President in 2015 ©Getty Images

Russian athletics has been severely affected by several of the nation's stars testing positive for prohibited substances, with World Athletics stamping down on the country when state-sponsored doping was found in the Moscow World Anti-Doping-accredited laboratory. 

As well as neutralising Russia before the Court of Arbitration for Sport decision in 2020 made it mandatory across sport, World Athletics set up the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU), an independent body to investigate and oversee integrity issues.

Most of these are related to anti-doping, but the AIU also covers areas such as corruption, harassment, assault, age manipulation and manipulation of competition results.

While Russia's name and athletes have long been associated with doping even before the leaks, Kenyan athletics' 2022 has been just as tumultuous. 

Marathon winners, Olympic champions and world-record holders have fallen to doping scandals in recent years. Jemima Sumgong, Asbel Kiprop and Diana Kipyokei are some of the most high-profile names to serve bans.

Some have likened the ramp-up in Kenyan positive tests to Russia, but World Athletics say they do not believe this is related to a state-sponsored doping programme.

Asbel Kiprop is one of the most notable Kenyans to face a doping ban ©Getty Images
Asbel Kiprop is one of the most notable Kenyans to face a doping ban ©Getty Images

It's the classic paradox - we assume it is getting worse because we are finding more cases of it. We should have dismay for finding more results, finding that more races we watched were not what they seemed, but we should be encouraged at how easily athletes are being found now, even if we cannot change the past.

An example of this away from sport was the number of sexual assaults in Sweden. A 2018 change in law led to the increase of rapes in the country, as well as a 75 per cent increase in convictions as reported in 2020.

Some linked this to the increase in migrants and asylum seekers, while ignoring the change that made this easier to report and a fairer process for victims. As you often hear with these grim statistics - it's horrible to see, but it is a necessary step that we have to confront.

Kenyan authorities are seeing the rise in doping cases in the same light. Scrutiny must instead fall on what the relevant sporting authorities were doing previously and what has changed.

Government officials are looking to criminalise doping and anti-doping received a makeover in 2016 after years of alleged corruption and ineffectiveness. From what we have seen since its formation, it can certainly be accused of the latter.

Choppy waters will continue to face Kenyan athletics with these issues still bubbling into 2023. With these positive cases, suspicion then turns to the national heroes.

Eliud Kipchoge can be regarded as one of the most-famous marathon runners of all time, up there with Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie. Even his reputation has been marked slightly by the scandal, much like Usain Bolt's was during a similar flurry in Jamaican athletics.

Three of Eliud Kipchoge's pacers from the 1:59 run have had anti-doping rule violations ©Getty Images
Three of Eliud Kipchoge's pacers from the 1:59 run have had anti-doping rule violations ©Getty Images

Three of his pacemakers from the Ineos 1:59 Challenge - Philemon Kacheran, Justus Kimutai and Marius Kipserem - have all been handed bans for anti-doping rule violations.

Kacheran was a training partner of Kipchoge at NN Running Team, a group that also consists of the second-fastest-ever men's marathon runner and Ethiopian distance great Kenenisa Bekele and Ugandan 5,000 metres Olympic champion Joshua Cheptegei.

The key reason Kenya's issues are different from Russia's is infrastructure. 

Much of the research into the problems around the country are related to finances, education and the "less sophisticated" system that breeds new talent in the East African nation.

Financially, an elite long-distance runner in Kenya can make serious money on the marathon circuit - targeting smaller races to avoid being outshone by the likes of Kipchoge. There have been several athletes who return positive tests who have never represented their country at an Olympic Games or World Championships, yet can make a living from collecting thousands in second-tier events.

A social security does not exist in Kenya in the way us Britons laud the welfare state in the United Kingdom. Those from poor socio-economic backgrounds do not have the benefit of, well, benefits like we do. My coach would lay it out simply to us when an African athlete would change allegiance to an oil-rich nation or decide to dope - many are willing to take the risk to improve their situation.

Education ties into this issue. While the best of the best are expecting the anti-doping scrutiny, those outside of elite programmes are fighting for the scraps to earn a living. Kenya is a Wild West for running, with 105 male runners breaking the 2 hours 10 minute barrier in 2022.

Combining the rest of the world in that - that's more than a third of the 297 runners who broke the barrier, with 68 of those also coming from Ethiopia too, which faces similar issues.

Philemon Kacheran was one of the Kenyans recently given a doping ban ©Getty Images
Philemon Kacheran was one of the Kenyans recently given a doping ban ©Getty Images

When there is a belief that dopers are not caught, when there is a consensus that even the elite runners are doing it and when there is no trust in the athletics body and anti-doping organisation to do right by the clean athletes, you end up having more tempted by the not-so-righteous path.

Kenya's anti-doping system is improving constantly, but as the AIU puts it, it is not centralised. It is still playing catch up with doping groups that have been improving ways to avoid detection for years.

The reason why we are seeing more positive Kenyans is a mix of more Government support and improved work within the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya.

What Kenya may have to get used to for the rest of the decade - even with improved anti-doping - is positive tests from the up-and-comers.

Education will do as much as it can, but where there is money on the line, we will continue to see fresh faces turn up in Kenyan distance running, of which some will likely be gaming the system to earn a living.

If we ask ourselves what is next for Kenyan running and how it can improve, we have to point out that continually making anti-doping education a staple for all young people is an important step. We also have to see the Government continue to invest heavily in anti-doping to the point where cheats are forced to cower or go clean. 

Most importantly, as the economy grows in Kenya, the authorities have the responsibility to tackle inequality in the country, which can combat the quick-buck thinking of some of the country's great-but-not-quite elite runners looking to escape a life of uncertainty.

Kenya may be in the naughty corner for now, but expect other nations with similar anti-doping set-ups to have their feet held too close to the fire in future. 

This flurry of doping cases, much like with the Russian revelations, is a necessary evil to making athletics fairer - even if it is hard to swallow the truth about some of the sport's finest moments on the road and track.