5th September 2019

Is Kenya keen to tackle EPO supply in Eldoret/Kapsabet?

Pharmacists in Kenya’s Eldoret/Kapsabet region are understood to be continuing to supply athletes with Erythropoietin (EPO), seven years after the issue was initially uncovered. This raises questions as to whether Kenyan authorities are keen to tackle the situation, or whether the availability of EPO is vital in order to attract athlete tourism to the area.

Journalists for Al Jazeera spoke to a Kenyan athlete who had used EPO and a pharmacist based in Eldoret (pictured), who had supplied EPO to six athletes. “I know that doping is bad, but as runners we have to support our families through any means”, said the athlete in the video (below).

In 2012, distance runner Matthew Kisorio told reporter Hajo Seppelt that many Kenyan athletes were doping in a series of documentaries, and alleged that Athletics Kenya was ignoring the situation. Kisorio completed a two year ban after testing positive for steroids in 2012. In a 2015 documentary, Poisoned Spikes, other athletes made similar allegations. In that video (below), two pharmacists agreed to supply EPO to undercover reporters.

In 2015, another documentary (video below) provided evidence that Kenyan distance runner Geoffrey Kipketer Tarno had died after taking EPO without medical supervision. Tarno was from a small mountain village near Eldoret. The documentary also corroborated that EPO was available around Eldoret, and featured video evidence of Kenyan and European athletes injecting it.

In 2016, UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) launched an investigation after three doctors working in the Eldoret/Kapsabet region agreed to supply EPO to three British athletes. The video (below) features a pacesetter at the High Altitude Training Centre (HATC) at Iten arranging to buy EPO from pharmacist Joseph Mwangi in Eldoret for the equivalent of €60. It also featured Ken Kipchumba Limo, a Clinical Officer at St. Luke’s hospital in Eldoret, claiming to have supplied 50 athletes from various European countries. 

The pacesetter referred to is Fredrick Lemishen Ngoyon (‘Freddy’), who has denied any part in arranging to supply EPO to athletes, and has claimed that he was set up by the documentary makers, a claim they deny. “It is true that we visited twice, however the idea that we set him up is nonsense, as you can see from the raw footage”, said Hajo Seppelt, who produced ARD’s coverage of the 2016 investigation.

A number of endurance athletes have trained in this area – including Britain’s Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe ahead of the London 2012 Olympics. Farah was filmed training with Ngoyon during 2013, as the BBC footage below reveals. However, the footage was filmed three years before ARD’s documentary and the Sunday Times’s article, and there is nothing to suggest anything more than a professional relationship between the two.

In July this year, an indictment by French prosecutors against Lamine Diack, former President of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and his son, Papa Massata Diack, alleged that British athletes, including a Gold medalist and ‘sports icon’, were involved in blood doping at the London 2012 Olympics (video below). The athlete was not named.

In May this year, the IAAF Ethics Board sanctioned Major Michael Rotich, Head Coach of the Kenyan athletics team for the 2016 Rio Olympics, with a ten year ban for agreeing to supply advance notice about when anti-doping tests would take place in exchange for money. In the 2016 video that resulted in UKAD’s investigation, he said that two British Doping Control Officers (DCOs) would be able to supply him with details of planned tests. “They have a list that says: ‘I’m going to test so and so’”, he said.

In November 2017, UKAD closed its investigation into allegations that three British athletes had been supplied with EPO. After opening an investigation in July 2016, UKAD concluded that medical documents purporting to relate to treatment administered to the athletes had been faked.

How UKAD verified that the documentation was faked is unknown, as it does not comment on investigations unless there is a case to answer. It is therefore also not known if UKAD investigated the allegations that British DCOs were providing advance notice of tests in the region. Seppelt and the original investigators maintain that the documentation is genuine.

A Kenyan former athlete and policeman involved in investigations into doping in the area, Julius Ndegwa, told the Mail on Sunday that he had been refused access to a training camp used by British Athletics. He told the newspaper that he had only been granted access after telling Sharad Rao, the former judge that led the IAAF’s investigations into Kenyan allegations, about the situation. Rao was the chief investigator into the allegations against Rotich.

Rotich, Mwangi, doctor Samson Talei and Kipchumba are subject to criminal charges in Kenya relating to the supply of prohibited substances to athletes. It is understood that criminal proceedings, levied in June last year, are still ongoing. As such, UKAD has previously confirmed that it cannot comment.

It is understood that UKAD closed its investigation after visiting Kenya and interviewing the three athletes concerned, who stayed at the HATC at Iten, 2,400m above sea level. The HATC camp is run by husband and wife team Lornah Kiplagat and Pieter Langerhorst. Kiplagat who has held distance world records and competed for the Netherlands at the Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics. Langerhorst dismissed any suggestion that the camp was complicit in doping athletes.

The Eldoret/Kapsabet region, at 2,100 metres above sea level, is the gateway city to high-altitude training in surrounding Kenyan villages. Over a sustained period, altitude training is thought to benefit athletes as lower oxygen levels mean that the body increases red blood cell and haemoglobin production. This aids the blood in carrying oxygen to the muscles, a benefit that remains for 10-14 days when the athlete returns to lower altitude. 

Conundrum

High altitude training is a legitimate reason for athletes to base themselves in the Eldoret/Kapsabet region. However, it would appear that there is another, nefarious, reason. A pharmacist separately told Kenya’s The Citizen that he is supplying EPO to athletes for as little as €17 a dose, corroborating Al Jazeera’s evidence. 

French investigators appear to have information that a British sport icon was involved in blood doping at the London 2012 Olympics. Ahead of the Games, Farah and Radcliffe trained in the region, where EPO remains available. Major Michael Rotich alleges that British DCOs supplied him with doping test times and dates. A policeman was refused access to a British training camp.

It is important to state that only the journalists involved in the 2016 documentary, UKAD, and the police know the identity of the three athletes whose medical documentation it found to be faked. We also don’t know how UKAD verified that the documentation had been faked. It is not known if UKAD investigated the allegations that DCOs were involved in providing advance notice of tests. There is nothing to suggest that Farah or Radcliffe – or any other British athlete that has trained in the region – were involved with doping.

Athletes from many European countries visit Eldoret/Kapsabet region, providing a valuable economic boost. Authorities have been aware of the availability of EPO in the area for seven years. Unless Kenya takes action to sort the situation out, elite athletes that visit the region will continue to be dogged by doping allegations.

The situation raises a conundrum. Are Kenyan authorities keen to clean up the region to protect the economic boost that visits from European athletes provide; or is EPO availability so important to athlete tourism that to remove it would damage the region’s economy? Kenya’s inaction suggests that the latter may be more accurate…

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