Avoiding a doping problem in marathon running? Might be too late.

I just read an astonishing – and very disappointing – statistic relating to elite level marathon runners:

Thirty-six Kenyans have been confirmed as failing [performance enhancing drug] tests in the past two years.

And probably the saddest thing is that I’m not at all surprised. The reasons why doping is almost certainly endemic in the heartland of endurance running are well understood and follow a pattern that, without a dramatic re-think by the authorities, will almost certainly be repeated over and over again. The pattern is something like this:

  1. A sport increases in popularity
  2. Brands recognise that people (their potential customers) are watching and/or participating in the sport in increasing numbers and they want to get involved, in the case of endurance sports by sponsoring races and athletes
  3. Races compete to offer bigger prize pots to attract better runners so they get more sponsorship
  4. As a result of more money – both in terms of sponsorship and prize money – athletes find that there is more and more competition at the top
  5. Athletes start assuming that the people who are winning the big prizes are doping, therefore they need to start doping in order to compete
  6. … Et viola! You have professional cycling in the ‘1990s and early 2000’s
Rita Jeptoo. Winner and cheat.
Rita Jeptoo. Winner and cheat.

I recognise that this is massively over-simplified, but a slide towards systematic doping like this is well recorded. And if you factor in that running is a sport in which there are few barriers to entry, then athletes from places like Kenya have an even greater incentive to win ever more competitive races. To put that in context, it is worth knowing a few facts about Kenya:

  • The per-capita GDP is $1,137 (compare that to the UK where the figure is $40,000)
  • Unemployment is around 40% (in the UK it is 6%)
  • 45% of the population of Kenya is below the poverty line

Winning the London Marathon nets $55,000. If the race is won in under 2:05 there is a $100,000 bonus and if the runner breaks the course record into the bargain, there is another $25,000. That could mean a winning prize of $180,000. Not bad if you come from a subsistence farm in rural Kenya. Oh and of course by winning the London, the athlete has quite a bit of additional sponsorship to factor in.

The point I am rather ham-fistedly trying to make is that there is a very strong motive for athletes – especially from poor places like east Africa – to win a relatively small number of races that have life-changing prize pots. In this environment, with so many people aiming for the same prizes, it is understandable that people will take whatever measures they deem necessary to win. And they can always justify those means by assuming that everyone else is using nefarious means.

There are a couple of other factors that point towards widespread doping in endurance sports in east Africa being probable:

  • In Kenya there is practically no out-of-competition testing which means that the chances of being caught are minimal (at least that used to be the case, but perhaps that is changing)
  • The brands are not motivated to ensure that their athletes are not doping. Apart from the embarrassment there is no real penalty for the brands if their athletes dope and if they are caught the brands simply deny knowledge and distance themselves. However being associated with winners is very good for the brands
  • The national federations are not motivated to stamp out doping – they want winners: it is good for national pride, national income and raises the profile of the country on a national scale
  • Coaches and agents are not directly penalised if their athletes are caught doping. Certainly their reputation suffers, but they are rarely in the limelight – after all who knows who Lance Armstrong’s agent was? – and they earn money from their athletes winning stuff, so they are at the very least motivated to turn a blind eye

So there you have it – the reason I am not surprised that there are so many runners in east Africa being caught doping is that I think there are many, many reasons why athletes would dope and very few why they wouldn’t.

The answer? Well if I knew that I would be the head of WADA (the World Anti Doping Agency). But I do tend to think that much, much stiffer penalties would help. For a start I think that if runners knew that they faced a lifetime ban from all competition in all sports for any doping offense, they might think twice. Warren Gatland – the sprinter banned TWICE for doping violations is testament to how ineffectual short bans are – he spent the time he was banned ‘getting faster’ (read into that what you will) and came back after a few months away, quicker than ever, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in Diamond League outings this year.

I would also take a Mafia approach and go after everyone associated with the cheats – their coaches, agents and doctors would all face lengthy, if not permanent, bans. National federations would face huge fines (in fact I would make them responsible for repaying the cheat’s lifetime winnings). Brands would be fined for sponsoring cheats.

That all sounds a bit heavy handed. But it might start to make the people who are currently uninterested in stopping their athletes from doping, have a strong incentive to make sure their athletes clean. And the athletes themselves would know that one slip would result in no sports career whatsoever for the rest of their lives.

I expect there are a myriad reasons this is not fair and not practical. But it is all I have got. If you have any suggestions, I’m sure WADA would love to hear them!

1 Comment

  1. Simon, great piece. Firstly I’d like to say how disgraced I am with this, and although there are many of us with an unwavering love of the sport, incidents like this will continue to eat away at track and field which is admittedly a sport on the decline. Interest and attendances at meets are falling, despite casual parkrunners and joggers skewing the participation figues in “athletics”

    Situations such as the one with Jeptoo et al seem a world away from the cross country and track meets that I compete at, although as you say the money on offer has a lot to do with it

    However in the interests of balance, I wonder what percentage of east africans are caught doping in comparison to their american and european rivals, as I am sure they make up a much larger proportion of elite fields?

    Although life bans appear to be on rocky legal ground, one good suggestion I have come across is to mark all of a doper’s results with a “D” in the results list, so as to taint every one of their career performances

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