Just How Bad Is The Doping Problem In Endurance Running?

Africa's Tarnished Legacy In Endurance Running

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For decades, the world of endurance running has been dominated by African countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. Africa has consistently produced a depth in quality of endurance runners that is unmatched in any other part of the world. 

In the last ten World Athletics Championships, African runners have produced 13 percent (almost 200) of the medals on offer. 

African runners were once seen as the epitome of clean running and have a natural talent cultivated by their unique environment and upbringing. 

However, the world of athletics has been rocked by a growing number of African runners being caught doping. 

The surge in such incidents has raised questions about the pervasive corruption in the governing bodies, athlete personnel, and healthcare systems that enable this alarming trend. 

Experts believe that at the root of the issue lies the complex web of poverty and desperation that continues to plague the continent.

Growing Number Of African Runners Receiving Doping Sanctions

One of the most notable cases is that of Kenyan long-distance runner Rita Jeptoo, who had won both the Chicago Marathon and the Boston Marathon. However, these results were nullified following her doping charges.

Jeptoo, a rising star known for her incredible stamina, was served a four-year ban from competition after testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug, erythropoietin (EPO), in 2014. 

Her case sent shockwaves throughout the athletics world and would mark the beginning of the continent’s tarnished reputation as a powerhouse in long-distance running.

Recent years have seen an unsettling increase in the number of African athletes being disqualified or facing bans for using prohibited substances to enhance their performance.

The latest high-profile ban came out of Kenya when marathon runner Titus Ekiru was served a ten-year ban. 

Ekiru, who previously held the sixth-fastest marathon time ever, was charged with two positive doping tests and with forging medical documents in collusion with a high-ranking doctor at a Kenyan hospital.

Another notable case occurred earlier this year when Ethiopian marathoner Eticha Jimma was served a five-year ban after producing two positive doping tests on two separate occasions in 2023. 

Jimma, the 2022 Paris Marathon runner-up, tested positive for the prohibited substance EPO.

Athletes Are Not Just To Blame

The above athletes doping cases are not isolated incidents. 

A common thread in this doping crisis is the involvement of corrupt individuals and entities at multiple levels. 

Athletes like Jeptoo have been known to engage in doping, not out of choice but necessity, often due to pressure from unscrupulous coaches and managers who have financial incentives to ensure their success.

In Jeptoo’s case, her manager, Frederico Rosa, was accused of facilitating the acquisition of the banned substance and even administering banned substanced to Jeptoo. 

Her other support personnel, including coach, assistant coach, doctor, and pharmacist were also taken to court to face accusations of assiting Jeptoo’s doping. 

Although all but her pharmacist were acquitted, it undoubtedly left the global athletics community with suspicions. 

Her pharmacist, Stephen Kiplagat, was charged for running an unlicensed pharmacy.

Widespread corruption in governing bodies further exacerbates the doping problem across Africa. 

Some officials turn a blind eye to doping or even facilitate it in exchange for bribes. The lack of regulation and enforcement in many African nations provides a fertile ground for this unethical practice to persist.

Healthcare professionals, including doctors and pharmacists, have also been implicated in supplying athletes like Jeptoo with banned substances under the radar, capitalizing on their vulnerability and limited access to adequate healthcare.

In current headlines, eyes are on all South African national teams as they are facing potential sanctions after the South African government and the South African National Anti-Doping Agency (NADO) have not updated their anti-doping legislation to be in line with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) requirements.

This comes just weeks after South Africa’s top female sprinter, Carina Horn, returned two positive doping tests, resulting in a six-year ban.

Initially, WADA put the October 13, 2023, deadline on South African policymakers to make their amendments or else sanctions would be imposed. 

Such sanctions would include national team athletes of all sports being unable to hear their anthem, wear their country’s colors, or fly their flag at international events.

It would also bar them from placing any bids to host international events. South Africa is hoping to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2027, but that would not be permitted should the sanctions come into place.

In an effort to stave off sanctions, South Africa appealed the deadline and submitted a letter to support their dispute. 

“Wada has received formal notification from the South Africa National Anti-Doping Agency (NADO) that it disputes that allegation of non-compliance against it, as well as the proposed consequences,” Wada said in a statement following the appeal.

Identifying The Heart Of The African Doping Crisis

At the heart of this crisis lies the issue of poverty, which affects many aspiring athletes in Africa.

While the potential for success in athletics can offer an escape from the cycle of poverty, the intense competition and limited opportunities can push many athletes to desperate measures.

The stories of the athletes mentioned in this article are not unique. 

Many of them hail from remote villages across Africa where access to proper training facilities, nutrition, and healthcare is scarce. The lack of financial support for athletes, inadequate training facilities, and the absence of social safety nets drive talented individuals like them to take risks to achieve their dreams. 

This vulnerability makes them susceptible to coaches, managers, and others who see doping as the only way to secure their gains.

Another root cause found in previous literature was the lack of education surrounding anti-doping in Africa.

While WADA actively promotes education as a main way to prevent doping, these efforts don’t account for regional contexts.

It was found that athletes across African countries lack accessibility to educational resources. 

Jeptoo said, of her positive doping tests, “We were naive then and had very little knowledge on doping matters.” 

This absence of resources leads athletes to rely on coaches and managers as information sources. As a result, an avenue for athlete exploitation is opened.

International Efforts To Protect African Athletics

To address this growing problem, African nations must work together to establish transparent and accountable sports institutions.

This includes implementing rigorous anti-doping measures, improving access to education, and creating more opportunities for young athletes to develop their talents.

It is also crucial for the international community to support these efforts and offer assistance to combat the root causes of doping, which include poverty and lack of resources. 

The Kings University College London sees the fight against doping as an international effort. They have partnered with Kenyan anti-doping efforts to support opening an anti-doping lab in Eldoret.

Only by addressing the root issues can African athletics begin to repair its tarnished reputation and continue to inspire the world with the incredible talents that lie within the continent. 

The cases of so many African athletes doping underscore the urgency of these efforts and the need to protect the future of African sports from the scourge of doping.

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Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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