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Tip-offs exposing Kenyan drug cheats

DOPINGNAIROBI, February 13- Kenyan sports has received a “big wake-up call” on doping but is finally grappling with the issue, the official leading an independent investigation told AFP Thursday.

Lawyer and sports medicine specialist Moni Wekesa said his probe into alleged doping among Kenya’s legendary runners, rising rugby stars as well as into a host of other sports was making solid progress in figuring out how bad cheating was in the country.

Kenya was forced to dig into the matter after a German television investigation aired in 2013 alleged that banned drugs, including the blood booster EPO, were readily available to athletes, among them top marathon runners.

A failure to investigate could leave the country, whose athletes are an immense source of national pride, running the risk of being sanctioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

“What is going on is a big wake up call, a wonderful wake up call. Things will never be the same in Kenyan sports again,” Wakesa explained in an interview, clearly relishing the challenge of saving the country’s unrivalled sporting record from being slighted by cheats, suspicion and innuendo.

“Doping is a cat and mouse game, a test of the supremacy of science. The challenge is to make sure we have systems and measures in place ensure that sports is clean.”

Wakesa admits that raising the doping issue has been something of a personal crusade, ever since he studied the topic in Cologne, Germany in the 1980’s, when Cold War rivalry was at its height and when the consumption of performance-enhancing drugs was widespread.

“We were taught how to test for doping, and we were also taught how to beat the tests,” he joked.

“I studied the science of doping very many years ago. But I came back to my country, Kenya, and nobody wanted to hear about it. It was a non-subject. It has taken a long time to try and get Kenyan authorities to understand the subject.”

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Anonymous tip-offs

The probe started last year, but almost stalled due to a lack of funds — prompting fresh pressure from WADA. This week the Kenyan government agreed bankroll the remainder of the operation, and a final report is expected to be published by the end of March.

Wekesa said the probe was being helped along by a flurry of anonymous tip-offs, and he said the overwhelming majority of athletes where extremely enthusiastic about the investigation.

“They’re telling us: ‘We are running clean. We are working very hard, punishing our bodies. We don’t want our image to be tarnished by a few who are cheating’,” he said.

“Several things have come out. We are aware of certain shops where athletes are getting drugs. We are aware of some coaches, not just in athletics, who are giving out drugs. There are agents who are doping athletes to make more money from them,” he said.

“We have plenty of leads, and we are following them.”

Since January 2012, increased tests have netted 17 Kenyans who were cheating in athletics. None of them have been big-name record breakers, but the drug busts have contradicted previous assertions from Athletics Kenya that its runners were totally spotless.

Kenya is famed for its endurance athletes, who hold world records from 800m through to the marathon.

The country is also hoping its Rugby 7’s team could medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and sport is becoming an important source of income in many communities, particularly in the highland Rift Valley region which is fast emerging as an international training centre.

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Wakesa agrees with most expert assessments that although doping is far from widespread, it does happen — either deliberately, or in many cases because of ignorance.

“The sportspersons in Kenya want to know. They are coming to us and asking for information, because they can make simple mistakes — like chewing leaves or roots which may contain a banned substance. Or they could be being given illegal supplements,” he explained.

“This whole noise has come at the right time, so we can finally put the measures and systems, including outreach and education, in place.”

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