Nobody knows how Pheidippides, the mythical herald who was history’s first marathoner, managed to run 26 miles to Athens after fighting the Persians all day. He dropped dead at the finish, and toxicology reports weren’t being done in 490 B.C.
But it’s no secret that Thomas Hicks took strychnine sulfate along with brandy and egg whites when he won the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. Waldemar Cierpinski, the former East German steeplechaser who outran defending champion Frank Shorter in Montreal in 1976, later was found to have taken steroids, according to his federation’s records.
So it was no novelty this year when five Kenyan athletes were banned for using performance-enhancing drugs in the wake of Boston finisher Mathew Kisorio’s subsequent ban for steroids last year. “No question that doping will enhance performance in the marathon,” says Dr. Gary Wadler, the Long Island drug expert and former chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list and methods subcommittee. “Whether it’s running or cycling, people understand when the fruits of their performances are illicit.”
The six World Marathon Majors — Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin, and Tokyo — now are determined to revoke those six-figure fruits with a stern anti-doping policy that will claw back prize money, performance bonuses, and appearance fees from athletes who test positive at or after their races.
“We’re not going to look the other way,” says Boston Athletic Association executive director Tom Grilk. “There’s not going to be a wink and a nod. No one’s going to be happy that someone became an immense public figure if they did it by cheating. We’d rather have 10 magnificent athletes winning races than one sweeping the landscape and becoming a worldwide hero only to find that perhaps he or she did it improperly.”
While no WMM winner has been caught and none of the banned Kenyans — Kisorio, Wilson Loyanae Erupe, Nixon Kiplagat Cherutich, Moses Kiptoo Kurgat, Jynocel Basweti, and Salome Jerono Biwott — is a top-tier star, officials at the marquee races understand their hardtop specialty hardly is squeaky clean.
“Looking at other sports it would be silly to pretend that it can’t happen here,” says Grilk. “People aspire to excellence and when there’s money in it there’s a lot of history in a lot of places that says that there can be mischief. Also, there have been stories written that so-and-so was doping. Whether that’s true or not, as soon as that gets into the air you’re going to have to address it or it looks like you’re pretending it isn’t there. We don’t want to do that.”
Both the recent bans and ample anecdotal evidence indicate that doping has become commonplace in Kenya, which has dominated global marathoning for more than a decade. “The number is growing and we are not happy about the statistics,” Athletics Kenya secretary general David Okeyo told Reuters. “We only hope that the culprits remain at a manageable level and that the issue is not as widespread as previous reports have indicated.”
The only way to make sure is to subject the East Africans to the same rigorous out-of-competition testing as their international rivals.
“We have to be able to show above and beyond doubt that the Kenyans and Ethiopians have been tested as much as anyone else in the world,” says Dave Bedford, the former London race director who chairs the international track-and-field federation’s road running commission.
The East Africans say they have no problem with that. “It is very important that athletes be clean,” says Ethiopia’s Gebre Gebremariam, who won New York in 2010 and was third here two years ago. “I’m very happy with that situation and I think every athlete will be happy.”
During marathon’s amateur era there was little incentive to dope because there was minimal reward.
“Wheat germ oil was my drug of choice,” recalls Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston victor who made a point of running naturally. “There were times I wouldn’t even take an aspirin because it didn’t seem the right thing to do.”
But with hundreds of marathons now offering millions of dollars in prize money, the incentive to cut corners is strong, especially for Kenyan runners who can lift themselves and their families out of poverty with just one triumph. “When you get sums of money, there’s a significant temptation,” says runners’ representative Ray Flynn.
Loyanae, who was banned for two years after testing positive for blood-boosting EPO, earned $80,000 for winning the Seoul Marathon, and even second-tier Kenyans can reap significant rewards by running mid-level races. Basweti, who is serving a two-year steroid ban, has won 17 marathons since 2006, including the Quad Cities three times. Three of his victories came within six weeks last year, as chronicled by Bonnie Ford of ESPN.com. “You don’t even have to win Boston or New York,” observes Burfoot, who’s Runner’s World’s Editor-at-Large. “You can go to the small-time races and pick up $3,000-$5,000 and keep banking it.”
The big paydays, though, come in the majors, where even a 10th-place finish is worth $4,200. That’s where Kisorio finished here last year after he’d faded in the heat after being up front going into the Newton hills.
“I didn’t run up to my standard during this year’s Boston Marathon,” he told the German television network ARD. “To get my power of endurance up [a doctor] told me they will take care of it. I asked if this is considered doping. He said, no problem, the substance stays only three to four days in your blood circulation and then it is impossible to prove . . . I went with it because everyone told me I wasn’t the only one — and none of the others got caught for doping.”
After Kisorio tested positive at the June national track-and-field championships, where he ran the 10,000 meters, Kenyan officials downplayed reports that doping was widespread among their distance runners. But this year’s cases confirmed what some of their own athletes have been saying.
“The information shows that there are a good number of athletes out there who are using drugs,” Moses Kiptanui, the three-time steeplechase world champion, told the BBC,
The IAAF, which has been dogged by drug issues on the track for decades, tested more than 40 elite runners in the Kenyan camps in January and plans to set up a permanent facility there. The elite athletes say they have no problem with that. “If you take drugs, they should take the money from you,” says Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, who set the Boston course record in 2010 and will be racing here again on Monday. “We want everybody to be clean.”
So do their rivals, “I’m glad they’re strict on it,” says Meb Keflezighi, the US runner who finished fourth behind two Kenyans in last year’s Olympic marathon in London. “I wish they were stricter on it earlier. I think it’s good for the sport. I think it’s good for the next generation.”
The past generation of East Africans is in the record books, its reputation secure. “The great Kenyans and Ethiopians, I have very little doubt about them,” says Burfoot, who was a schoolboy when Abebe Bikila ran barefoot over Roman cobblestones to win the 1960 Games. “I feel they were great athletes and as completely clean as anyone else out there. That said, you have to acknowledge that they ran awfully damn fast — and none of us will ever know the truth.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.