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Kenya’s crisis is unique and driven by poverty, track and field’s anti-doping head tells the AP

In all likelihood, Kenya will haul in another good chunk of medals in distance races at this month’s track and field world championships, each one of them throwing more suspicion on a country with a reputational crisis because of doping.

Kenya has achieved unparalleled success in modern distance running, but a wave of positive drug tests over the last decade has made it the sport’s latest doping pariah and pushed it to the brink of a sweeping international ban that would put it alongside Russia.

Anti-doping authorities inside and outside the East African nation are grappling to get it under control.

“We’re trying to clean up our country,” said Faith Kipyegon, the Kenyan middle-distance runner who broke three world records this year, has never failed a doping test, but was asked at a recent news conference — like many of her compatriots often are — to account for the more than 180 doping sanctions handed out to Kenyans since 2017.

The root of Kenya’s problem is unique in the global athletics ecosystem, according to the man whose job it is to fix it. It’s very different to the state-sponsored scheme that led to Russia being thrown out of international track.

In Kenya, there’s “a temptation to dope that’s like no other part of our sport, not even close,” said Brett Clothier, the head of the Athletics Integrity Unit, the independent body set up in 2017 to oversee international track and field’s anti-doping operations and which has been kept very busy by Kenya.

The first point Clothier made in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of the world championships in Budapest, Hungary, starting this weekend is that you need to understand Kenya to understand the doping crisis that’s unraveled in Kenya.

The vast majority of the hundreds of distance runners pouring out of Kenya’s high-altitude training grounds are not running for gold medals at the world championships and the Olympics or for national pride. They are competing for pay checks first, running to get away from poverty.

Because of that, Kenya’s doping problem didn’t start on the track, Clothier said, but in road running; the marathons and the 5K and 10K races around the world — the grinding edge of distance running away from the major track meets but which is the most lucrative part of athletics and where there’s good money on offer almost every week to attract Kenya’s bountiful talent.

“This money that we’re talking about … is life-changing,” Clothier said. “Not just for them, but for their families, their whole communities. In essence, it really is all about the money.”

While that doesn’t justify it, it shows why doping to get ahead is maybe more of a temptation in Kenya than in the United States or Europe. Clothier said Kenyan athletes, because of their economic need, “take risks that no one, no other athletes who are controlled by us, would normally take.”

The athlete numbers also mean that while other countries focus their drug testing on their top contenders, which might be five athletes in each of a few events, Kenya has hundreds of distance runners capable of winning, from a marathon all the way down to an 800-meter track race.

That’s incredibly difficult to control, Clothier said, and though the doping culture was bred in road running, it undoubtedly took hold in track runners, too.

While laying out some of the reasons behind it, Clothier is far from apologizing for Kenya’s doping.

He said also clearly to blame were Kenya’s own anti-doping guardrails, which were flimsy at the best of times, and non-existent for much of the time before the start of a turnaround in the last 12 months.

Kenya only established a national anti-doping agency in 2016, an eye opener considering it has been the dominant force in distance running for decades and has won the second-most medals across the board in the history of the worlds behind the United States.

Before this year, Kenya had committed $2.5 million a year to anti-doping, Clothier said, not nearly enough. There were only 38 athletes in Kenya’s national doping testing pool last year, a miniscule amount. There will be 300 this year, Clothier said.

Apart from the international track body and the AIU’s attempts to prop up its testing program, Kenya was “a completely uncontrolled environment, quite frankly,” Clothier said.

The issue reached a head last November, when an outright ban for the country was on the table before the Kenyan government committed another $5 million a year for the next five years to fight doping, and publicly accepted the problem was endemic and not, as it said for years, the work of a few rogue foreign coaches and agents.

The AIU is only now at the start of a five-year plan to save Kenyan athletics, but the elite athletes are being brought under tighter control for a start. Clothier said the Kenya team at the worlds will be “absolutely one of the most comprehensively tested teams.”

As the program then looks to also reign in those vast numbers of runners who compete on the road, Clothier said it will be “a long ride” with even more failed tests, and more athletes banned.

“We’re certainly expecting more positive tests. I’ll tell you that straight away,” Clothier said. “But that’s the system working.”

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