Thomas Hicks was doped in 1904 when he won the Olympic marathon in St. Louis. Hicks, a Cambridge brass worker who’d finished second in Boston that year, swallowed a combination of strychnine (rat poison), brandy, and egg whites. East Germany’s Waldemar Cierpinski was believed to have taken steroids before he won at the 1976 and 1980 Games. So the recent drug scandals involving Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo and Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova are nothing new in hardtop history.
But amid dozens of positive tests during the last two years involving distance athletes from both of those countries the race directors from the world’s most prominent races are taking unprecedented steps to clean up marathoning at the highest levels. “Our sport should be the purest, and unfortunately that hasn’t been the case,” says Meb Keflezighi, who’ll defend his Boston Marathon men’s title on Monday while Jeptoo will be prevented from defending her women’s crown.
Beginning this year, when penalties for first-time doping offenders have been doubled to four years by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the Abbott World Marathon Majors will pay for out-of-competition testing for an athletes’ pool that will include approximately the top 150 runners.
“I am ecstatic that they took such a stance,” says Shalane Flanagan, the Marblehead native who’ll be one of the women’s favorites here on Monday. “It’s just mandatory. At this level you can’t let anyone come in and compete when other people are doing it the right way.”
The program, which is being administered by the international track and field federation and funded by the AWMM, will include testing at a first-ever laboratory in Kenya, where multiple positives have created a cloud of doubt above the planet’s most dominant marathoning country.
“That will be a game-changer, as well,” says London Marathon chief executive Nick Bitel, who also is the AWMM’s general counsel. “It has been difficult and expensive to get samples from there to Switzerland.”
The enhanced testing regimen is the only way, race directors say, to convince both clean athletes and a suspicious public that the sport is on the level. “People are watching magic when they’re watching these races,” says New York City Marathon race director Mary Wittenberg. “Once someone’s duped and what they’re watching isn’t real, it erodes the authenticity of what they’re watching.”
While doping has been on the rise in distance events, the miscreants largely were Russian race walkers and Kenyan second-tier marathoners. But when Jeptoo, the three-time Boston victor and two-time Chicago winner, and Shobukhova, who won the Chicago crown from 2009-11 and London in 2010, were banned last year, it sent shock waves through the sport. “We all feel burned,” says Wittenberg.
Since both Jeptoo’s and Shobukhova’s suspensions are being appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, their victories still stand. “We put an asterisk by them,” says Bitel. Shobukhova was nailed for hematological abnormalities in her biological passport. If CAS upholds her suspension, all of her results since October 2009 will be annulled.
If so, the AWMM could try to reclaim the $500,000 bonuses that Shobukhova collected in 2010 and 2011 for winning the overall women’s title. That likely would mean seeking redress through the Russian courts, at best an uncertain prospect. After Jeptoo tested positive for blood-boosting EPO last September, less than three weeks before she won her second Chicago race, she was denied her $500,000 bonus pending resolution of her case.
So it is not a coincidence that the bonus now will be awarded in $100,000 payments over five years. “That is absolutely part of the re-look at doping,” says Bitel. “It’s saying to the athletes, not only are you going to have to be clean when you win but you’ve got to stay clean.”
The testing program will include all athletes who’ve earned AWMM points since 2012, all men who’ve run 2 hours 11 minutes or better, all women who’ve gone 2:27 or under, and all first-timers who’ve run a half-marathon in 1:00 (men) or 1:09 (women). Runners will be subject to at least four tests a year and race directors can specify any who’ve signed on for their events.
“I have and will have a high degree of confidence that we’ll have athletes who’ve been tested in a program that’s most rigorous,” says Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk. “I think it leads the way.”
The elite runners themselves, distressed that they’ve been broad-brushed as dopers, welcome more frequent out-of-competition testing. “It’s very good,” says Kenya’s Wesley Korir, who won the 2012 men’s title here. “As an athlete and as a champion of a clean sport I really encourage that. I have proposed before that they really need to make sure that the people who come here are clean athletes because what is happening is the dirty athletes are killing the sport. I think what the Majors are doing is just very commendable.”
Kenya’s marathoners have set the gold standard during the past quarter-century, winning 107 men’s and women’s titles at the six major races, as well as seven world crowns and an Olympic gold medal. “I didn’t believe they could benefit from drugs like EPO,” says Bill Rodgers, the four-time Boston champion. “I figured altitude was enough. They’re winning everything already.”
But with internal competition from hundreds of their countrymen and women and dozens of challengers from neighboring Ethiopia, doping has become a tempting option in a sport where one victory alone can provide financial security for an extended family.
“You think everybody’s doing it clean, that there’s no other way,” says Keflezighi, who won a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics and placed fourth in London three years ago. “It’s frustrating. In a 26.2 journey, there’s no shortcut. You don’t skip miles. Unfortunately, some people have skipped those things to make it happen.”
Athletics Kenya, shaken to the core by the global perception that many of its distance runners are dirty, has banned Jeptoo for two years. And last week it suspended Rosa Associati of Italy (which represents Jeptoo) and Volare Sports of the Netherlands, the two most prominent management organizations operating in the country, from representing Kenyan marathoners for six months.
“There have been a lot of reports relating to doping in Kenya, a lot of fingers pointed at people, agents, doctors, and pharmacists,” federation chief Isaiah Kiplagat, who has called the doping issue “just as bad as AIDS,” said at a Nairobi news conference. “We know it’s an intricate issue and critical matter and we want to deal with it.”
Jeptoo’s suspension was felt especially keenly in Boston, which has had a long and warm association with Kenyan runners, who’ve won 20 men’s and 11 women’s titles. Eleven of them, including former champions Caroline Kilel, Sharon Cherop, and Korir, were invited for Monday’s race. “We don’t look to athletes of any nationality as being suspect because of their country of citizenship,” says Grilk, who calls it “emotional stereotyping.”
By requiring all elite runners to undergo the same scrutiny, the AWMM regimen provides them with an opportunity to dispel suspicion. “You would hate for people who cheat to throw a cloud over other athletes from their country,” says Wittenberg. “The pool helps ensure that doesn’t happen.”
The size of the pool also minimizes the chance that victories will be tainted months after the champion has been crowned and the check cashed. Jeptoo and Shobukhova alone besmirched eight races in three cities across six years. “Does this sting? It does sting,” says Chicago race director Carey Pinkowski. “Is it disappointing? It is disappointing.”
So the new testing program is designed to make sure that the public can trust what it’s seeing and that competitors can take the line confident that none of them has a pharmaceutical edge. “This will bring some real clarity and a level playing field,” says Pinkowski. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
How the drug-testing program works
The six Abbott World Marathon Majors races (Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York, Tokyo) have established an out-of-competition testing program for performance-enhancing drugs, which will include approximately 150 elite athletes. They include:
■ All runners who’ve earned AWMM points since 2012.
■ All other male runners who’ve run 2:11:00 or better and female runners who’ve run 2:27:00 or better since 2012. If they do not score points in the event, they’ll be dropped from the pool.
■ All runners making their marathon debuts who’ve run a half-marathon in 1:00 or better (male) or 1:09 (female).
■ Any other runner deemed fit for inclusion by the AWMM and the IAAF (international track and field federation).
■ The testing pool will be updated seasonally, with athletes no longer included three years after their last points performance or upon their official retirement.
■ The AWMM will pay for the testing, which will be administered by the IAAF.