ITEN, BALIPOST.com – At first Alex did not want to dope. The Kenyan runner wanted to compete clean, earn an honest living, and lift his family out of poverty through grit and determination.
But his resolve crumbled as he realised he could not match his opponents, athletes he knew were doping and beating the system set up to catch drug cheats.
Soon, Alex was boosting his performance with erythropoietin (EPO), a substance banned by the world doping watchdog but poorly regulated in Kenya.
“I had to use it, in order to earn a living. You cannot compete with people already using and expect to earn something reasonable,” said Alex, who spoke with AFP on condition of anonymity and asked that his name be changed.
“Sport today is not clean.”
Kenyans are legendary marathoners, making up 38 of the world’s top 100 runners in 2019. But the country’s anti-doping authorities have struggled to stamp out a culture of drug use in its fabled athletic fraternity.
Alex trains in Iten, hallowed ground for aspiring Kenyan runners who dream of following their idols from the high plateau above the Rift Valley to the Olympic podium and record books.
But most do not make the big league.
Nearly a thousand Kenyans earn a living competing in marathons across the globe, according to the Athletics Integrity Unit, runners whose times — though unnoteworthy at home — would make them stars anywhere else.
They are not taking home the tens of thousands on offer at major marathons but pick up a few hundred, maybe the odd thousand, in second and third-tier races.
These prizes are fiercely coveted by the enormous pool of talented Kenyans. Placing anywhere high-up could support whole families for months, in a country where many live on little more than $1 a day.
It is among this class of competitor — professional grade, but not elite — that doping is most rampant and unchecked, athletes say.
“You don’t have to be an elite athlete, be on the national team, go to the big races, to make money,” said a pharmacist in Eldoret, a city near Iten, who sells EPO to runners for $20 (17 euros) a dose. (AFP)