New York, New York — With a new title sponsor, a new logo, and a new mayor on board, the TCS New York City Marathon’s mood leading up to its 44th running had a happy Halloween joyfulness to it. Then we awoke to news that World Marathon Majors Series women’s champion Rita Jeptoo of Kenya had reportedly tested positive for an illegal substance (EPO) in an out of competition drug test this September before her win at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
The news, coming just days before the World Marathon Majors was scheduled to award its $1 million dollar prize to its two 2013-2014 series champions placed a cloud over New York’s pinnacle running weekend as the professional international field for Sunday’s race was being presented to the assembled press. It also had the World Marathon Majors scrambling to cancel its Sunday awards as more details regarding Jeptoo were being gathered.
The first person I saw in the hotel lobby this morning was Virgin Money London Marathon president and World Marathon Majors general counsel Nick Bitel. Nick just shook his head, knowing that his partners at World Marathon Majors had just signed their first ever title sponsor, Abbott, to a four year contract in Chicago. And now, the first big news after Chicago and in the world media capital was a positive drug test of their World Marathon Majors women’s champion? Not good. And this is after two-time WMM series champion Lilya Shobukhova of Russia, three-time Chicago champion (2009-2011) as well as the 2010 London Marathon champ had had all her results annulled from 2009 on following an adverse finding on her biological passport indicative of drug use.
But at least Bitel was pleased, if that’s even the right word, that the test that uncovered the alleged drug positive by Jeptoo had come, in part, via funding provided by World Marathon Majors in cooperation with the IAAF. In the past, getting testers into the wilds of rural Kenya for out of competition testing has been quite problematic. Now, with WMM backing, the bitter fruits of those labors have been harvested, it would seem a,s a spate of drug positives have come out of Kenya over the last several years.
At the Jacob Javits Center, where the pre-race press room has been relocated this year, Jeptoo’s manager Federico Rosa and her coach, Claudio Berardelli, were surrounded by we press and peppered with questions. Rita Jeptoo was the third Rosa managed and Berardelli coached athlete to have had an A drug sample test positive since 2012. Two years ago road racer Matthew Kisorio tested positive and was given a two-year suspension. Previously, Rita Jeptoo’s training partner Jemimah Sumgong, who is entered in Sunday’s marathon, was caught using a cortisone product after finishing second at the 2012 Boston Marathon, a metabolite of nandrolone. But after an appeal to the IAAF by her agent Federico Rosa, Sumgong’s two-year ban was lifted after it was determined that she had received an injection for a diagnosed hip injury, which, when injected locally into the injured area is not prohibited. Even so, there are those who believe where there is smoke…
“From my side I feel like I failed,” Coach Berardelli said while admitting no connection to the PED in question. “We have been careful in all details. I am with Rita from 5:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. four days a week, but we can’t be with them 24 hours a day. I don’t know if I can do my job anymore. But you can’t be naïve if you are a professional athlete. You can’t come up and say, ‘I didn’t know’.
Berardelli, who has been coaching Jeptoo since 2012, said the Rosa team had a doctor in Nairobi who Jeptoo went to see during her Chicago training cycle when she wasn’t feeling well. But the doctor said it was only the effects of hard training, nothing else.
“Again, I feel stupid now,” continued an obviously shaken Berardelli. “It is unfortunate for all my athletes, because people will say ‘they are all doing drugs’. Maybe something else is going on. I have spent 11 years in Kenya, and I am with one of the biggest companies in Kenya, Rosa & Associates. They are not a little company, and they have invested a lot of money. But no doubt, I understand, people will say it is me, because this is the second athlete I have had tested positive. But I never saw anything. There were rumors, yes, but Federico (son her Gabriele Rosa) said there is something in the system. Maybe something else is going on.”
Berardelli said he had telephoned Jeptoo when he heard the news this morning, and all she told him was that she was confused, and. “I don’t know.”
Corruption in Kenya is rife. Plus, the desire to raise oneself out of poverty is a strong motivation. We have seen the results of that motivation in an unprecedented level of running excellence coming out of Kenya for the last generation. But who knows how far that motivation can drive an athlete? I recall Sweden’s Kjell-Eric Stahl, a top runner from the 1980 telling me there are athletes in some parts of the world where the cost-benefit analysis of doing performance enhancing drugs falls favorably on the side of doing them. Think of the Bulgarian weightlifters, he said. If I don’t get caught, goes the logic, I make a fortune that can help me and my family immeasurably. If I do get caught, what have I lost? I just go back to the same nothing I had before I began.
In 1986 I was told by someone in the know that one of the top three finishers at the New York City Marathon had tested positive, but that it wasn’t the winner, Gianni Poli of Italy. That left Poland’s Toni Niemczak in second and Australia’s Rob deCastella in third. I called Deke in Australia and he said it wasn’t him. So I traced Niemczak to the Vulcan Run 10K in Birmingham, Alabama, and since my mother was Polish, I asked her to call Toni and ask him a series of questions I had prepared, and to report back to me with his answers. When Mom called me back a half hour later, she said, “he is a nice boy. Don’t hurt him.” Well, he was a nice boy. But he was also a drug cheat.
But when you live in circumstances where there are very few opportunities to get ahead, and the chance comes along to assist in that getaway, but the assist lies beyond the pale of acceptable behavior, you can still convince yourself that I’m just leveling the playing field, and helping my family out of a bad situation.
Who knows what happened with Rita Jeptoo. Right now the World Marathon Majors has halted their scheduled awards ceremony for Sunday afternoon. Any drug positive, by rule, eliminates the positively tested athlete from any award. So, at present, if Jeptoo’s B sample comes back and confirms the A test, Edna Kiplagat would be in line to take home the $500,000 series prize. And because she has such a substantial lead in the standings over third place, her results on Sunday wouldn’t alter that outcome. And maybe that would be a form of justice as Edna was in position to win the 2011-2012 WMM Series title. But Hurricane Sandy wiped out her chance when the race was cancelled.
“I’m trying to analyze what I saw in training,” continued Coach Berardelli, who has always been forthcoming and helpful with this reporter’s questions over the years. “From my side, I won’t refuse to shake her hand if I see her, but if it is true, then I won’t have anything to do with any athlete who does these things.
“I grew up coaching in Kenya where the focus was on making sure the athletes had enough ugali and vegetables so there would be no stomach problem. Martin Lel (former two-time New York City and three-time London Marathon champion) wouldn’t even take an aspirin. This (situation) could destroy the whole system, for us and for the credibility of Kenya. People will say, ‘we know now why they run so fast’. But I know really why, and the vast majority of athletes are clean. But I just don’t know now. The Rita story could be the one to open the door on the whole dirty system.”
There is still the B sample to test, and even the A sample to be officially announced as positive. Until then, a blanket of doubt has been pulled over any and all results in a sport which has been having enough trouble as it is appealing to an ever dwindling fan base. To say this doesn’t help doesn’t do the damage justice.