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Giant of distance running rocked by allegations of widespread doping

DOPING allegations in the East African media this week have potentially explosive consequences for athletics.

Sparked by a German journalist, they claim to present evidence of widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by Kenyan athletes. The country has increasingly dominated running over four decades, and the allegations strike at the heart of this success on four fronts.

They tarnish Kenyan championship medal success; a near monopoly of the most lucrative big-city marathons; prompt questions about the true value of their domination of the rankings, and compromise the growing number of training camps established in recent years. These bring resources to an impoverished region where subsistence farmers – the main occupation – earn around £1 per day.

This will all be at risk if the allegations are substantiated. Double Olympic champion Mo Farah credits his altitude training there, and adoption of the Kenyan regime and mindset, as a factor in his success. Several Scots, including Freya Murray, the leading British Olympic women's marathon finisher, have attended camps in Iten, in the Rift Valley.

When Hajo Seppelt first made his allegations on ARD TV in May, they were dismissed by Athletics Kenya's chairman, Isiah Kiplagat. However, when Seppelt reiterated them on a radio programme last Saturday, he named Kenyan Olympic marathon champions, and other unspecified athletes from elsewhere.

Kiplagat now says his national governing body takes the allegations seriously. "We are working with the Kenya Police and WADA to have the culprits arrested for that criminal act," Kiplagat told StarAfrica.com. He said progress had already been made and promised some doctors involved would be arrested before December. He said they had been injecting athletes with banned substances in return for a share of their earnings.

This is evocative of cycling, and Dr Michel Ferarri. The Italian helped US Postal and Lance Armstrong to several Tour de France victories. His doping exploits led to him being banned for life from all sport earlier this year. Ferarri once said that the blood-boosting agent, erythropoietin, was "no more dangerous than drinking 10 litres of orange juice."

Seppelt posed as an athletes' agent during several months of investigation. He claims treatments were given in a Nairobi clinic in return for kick-backs.

In his earlier dismissal Kiplagat claimed to be: "unaware of any athlete who has used drugs . . . We have never hidden anything," he told journalists, and described the allegations as "defamation".

He noted they coincided with Olympic preparations and might be: "purposely aimed at demoralizing the athletes. This depicts Kenya as a country where athletes use enhancing drugs to win their races. It is my hope that this story will not affect and cause panic among our athletes, since there is nothing that is true in it."

Kiplagat stressed his federation would not send any athlete to London unless they had been rigorously tested. Now, however, he has been forced to back-track.

Kenya's medal haul in London was poor – two golds against six in Beijing. The allegations provide fertile soil for those inclined to be sceptical or cynical.

The world's 20 fastest marathon men last year, and 27 of the 30 fastest were Kenyan. The fastest Brit, Scott Overall, ran 2:10.55 – 108 Kenyans were quicker, and 275 were faster than the leading Scot, Andrew Lemoncello (2:15.24).

Kenyan domination of middle distance and endurance is mind-blowing. Yet only a tiny fraction of their 41m population was responsible for the following statistics last year. At 800 metres, four of the world's 10 fastest men were Kenyan; 1500m 4/10 (the four fastest); 5000m 5/10; 10,000m 4/10 (and 8/10 at 10k on the road); half marathon 5/10; marathon 10/10; steeplechase 7/10.

Of the seven Kenyans currently serving doping suspensions (four of them caught this year) only one is for the blood booster, EPO. Matthew Kisorio, a former African junior 5000 and 10,000m champion who recorded the fourth fastest half marathon ever last year, tested positive for a steroid at the Kenyan trials in June. He has since admitted to EPO use, and says many of his compatriots are doping.

Last year, 86 out of the 120 international men's marathons worldwide were won by Kenyans, all of whom in each of these races earned more than the average Kenyan subsistence farmer could earn in 10 years. Those Kenyans who set course records in the World Marathon Majors (London, New York, Boston, Chicago and Berlin) pocketed more from a single race than such a farmer could earn in a lifetime. The overall series prize was $500,000.

So the incentive to succeed – or cheat – is huge. But the fact that it would cost upwards of $10,000 to dope a single athlete suggests the sums don't add up. Natural ability, and the well-documented environmental benefits remain the most plausible reason for Kenyan athletics success.

The sport must hope so. Widespread Kenyan doping would be a bigger bust than anything thus far in cycling.

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