Another World Cup where impossible is nothing

A world away from supposedly squeaky-clean Qatar, World Athletics is considering an outright ban on Kenyan athletics

News sometimes travels fast in this business, which is a good thing. Not everything is as it seems, or by the time this goes to print even the same. Especially if it looks too good to be true.

Over in suitably squeaky-clean Qatar, there is no talk or even a whisper of anything beyond the extraordinary. Only moving gestures of a different sort. Impossible is nothing.

Before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Fifa announced plans to carry out over 1,000 anti-doping tests on all 32 teams, 736 players in total, including 777 out-of-competition and another 232 during the tournament itself. Every single test came back negative.

Because there was no testing lab in Brazil accredited to the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), all the samples were tested in Lausanne, Switzerland.


You don’t have to be Ben Johnson to understand some of the finest performance enhancing drugs available to mankind can disappear from a doping sample if it’s not tested within 36 hours – more or less the same length of time it takes to fly from Manaus, deep in the Brazilian Amazon, on to São Paulo, then across the Atlantic to a Swiss city on the shores of Lake Geneva.

You don’t have to be an expert to understand the way those samples are handled and transported can be a dodgy business, and securing the chain of custody from 12 cities across Brazil to a laboratory in Lausanne may be impossible to guard against.

You don’t have to be Lance Armstrong to understand most performance enhancing drugs are actually just illegal training tools, anyway, and the idea of testing anyone in or around competition these days is a mostly useless exercise.

A year later, in 2015, a study commissioned by Uefa found that tests on some 900 top players, between 2008 and 2013, 7.7 per cent had elevated levels of testosterone, which often signals the use of banned substance.

Four years ago, at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, keen to replicate some of Germany’s 2006 Sommermärchen, the host nation promised zero tolerance and total transparency. Every single test came back negative.

That was two years after Dick Pound, the former head of Wada, first revealed that Russia had essentially “sabotaged” the 2012 London Olympics, such was their “widespread inaction” against athletes with suspiciously obvious doping profiles.

“It’s worse than we thought,” added Pound, a man who usually fears for the worst when it comes to doping. Before the 2014 World Cup Pound added: “There has been an institutional denial of doping in football for years . . . I’ve seen too many presentations by Fifa, straight out of fantasy land, about how they don’t have a problem”.

Two weeks before Saudi Arabia produced one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history, beating Argentina, Fahad al-Muwallad was withdrawn from the squad “as a precaution”, due to the 28-year-old winger’s failed doping test in February.

Al-Muwallad tested positive for furosemide, a known masking agent on the Wada list of banned substances, although was originally hoping to play given his case is still pending; it doesn’t usually work that way. Keita Balde didn’t make it with the Senegal squad either, given a 90-day suspension for breaking anti-doping protocols after a match with Cagliari in September.

All this means the last player to fail a doping test during the course of the World Cup remains Diego Maradona in the USA 1994, his sample actually showing up five different variants of the stimulant ephedrine, although it’s said the only reason Maradona was caught is because Fifa wanted him caught.

Maradona, naturally, denied that he was taking illegal substances, claiming his personal trainer gave him the power drink Rip Fuel, that was all. Maradona was punished, unlike when all 15 Premier League players, according to a report in April, returned positive anti-doping tests between 2015 and 2020 and not one was sanctioned.

The UK Anti-Doping Agency (UKAD) accepted they were all accidental or else explained by a Therapeutic Use Exemption.

Next Tuesday, at the headquarters of the Italian Olympic Committee in Rome, a World Athletics Council meeting will decide what to do about Kenya.

“Kenya stares at athletics ban” – ran the front-page headline in Thursday’s Daily Nation. “Sad reality of Kenya’s runners banned for doping but lie they are injured” – ran the headline the week before.

This is after the combined efforts and zero tolerance of the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) and the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (Adak), who between them found 17 positive doping cases so far this year, with another 22 reportedly not yet made public.

It means there are now close to 60 Kenyans, mostly marathon runners, currently suspended by the AIU, a national tally second only to Russia.

They may not be household names, only the races they’re winning are. Marius Kipserem, the winner of the Rotterdam Marathon in 2016 and again 2019; in August he tested positive for the now old-fashioned erythropoietin (EPO).

Diana Kipyokei, the winner of last year’s Boston Marathon; last month done for triamcinolone acetonide, this one a steroid known for its anti-inflammatory effect, plus benefits in weight reduction and increases in endurance.

Six days before Kipyokei was busted, Lawrence Cherono, the winner of the 2019 Chicago and Boston Marathon, also got confirmation he was being suspended for using trimetazidine, a powerful metabolic agent used to treat severe heart conditions.

And Philemon Kacheran, done for even older-fashioned testosterone: with a marathon best of 2:05:19, he was also part of Eliud Kipchoge’s Nike pace-making team for that Ineos-branded stunt in Vienna in 2019, when Kipchoge clocked his unofficial 1:59.40 to prove in his own words that “impossible is nothing”.

In 2015, at a council meeting in Monaco, World Athletics made the unprecedented decision to impose an outright ban on Russia in the wake of damning revelations by Wada of systematic doping and cover-ups in Russia. Doping in Kenya is not systematic, it’s simply widespread, fuelled by the same greed and corruption.

The Kenyan government is scrambling to save them from a fate similar to Russia, sports cabinet secretary Ababu Namwamba this week writing to World Athletics president Sebastian Coe.

“We cannot allow our nation to be banned because of the actions of some greedy unethical individuals,” Namwamba said. “We will target and deal decisively with the criminals and their syndicates. We must work together to eradicate doping and cheating from athletics and sports in general.”

A world away from squeaky-clean Qatar, World Athletics can now make another stand and important statement, even if only temporarily, on this one. Especially when it always looked too good to be true.