When Rita Jeptoo’s “A” sample tested positive for synthetic EPO at the end of October, the shock wave was felt well beyond the insular world of running fanatics. Even people who knew little about running, and who didn’t recognize Jeptoo’s name, understood that (as the New York Times put it) a cloud had been cast over the great tradition of Kenyan distance running (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/01/sports/marathon-champion-rita-jeptoo-fails-doping-test.html)
Reactions, including a rush to find someone to blame, reflected the various interests and biases of different stakeholders.
Her manager, Federico Rosa, and her coach Claudio Berardelli attempted to distance themselves from their athlete. Berardelli was quoted on LetsRun saying, “I feel stupid… I feel like I’m no longer able to do this job — I don’t know what is my real impact because now it seems like there is something going on behind the scenes.”
Berardelli’s statement might be entirely genuine, but it is also a necessary act of self-preservation for a coach who will now have had three high-profile athletes under his care fail drug tests (Matthew Kisorio served a two-year ban for EPO, but Jemima Sumgong had a two-year ban — for a cortisone injection — lifted after on appeal). Rosa took a similar line, denying any responsibility and expressing his confidence in Berardelli. Both the manager and coach made vague accusations against unscrupulous athletic agents in Kenya.
World-renowned coach and LetsRun guru Renato Canova also weighed in, which was especially interesting, since he had coached Jeptoo from 1998 to 2006. Not surprisingly, he also did not think the problem was with foreign managers and coaches. Instead, he wrote about Kenyan culture and about how there are many people willing to take advantage of under-educated runners. In a particularly paternalist passage, Canova writes:
“Western Countries need to understand that poor African people have an important “motor” for living, that is their “hope in a better future”. They are psychologically very weak about this issue, believing in everything somebody can tell them, able to give more hope. I’m not surprise if many Kenyan runners, of medium and low level, and without education, can be positive for some doping, and of course I don’t consider this as ‘rampant’ in Kenya, where we have may be 5000 runners.”
Others, including prominent Kenyan athletes, criticized Athletics Kenya for being slow to take the problem of doping seriously. Others wrote that the public should withhold judgement on Jeptoo until her “B” sample has been tested (which she has requested).
What strikes me about the entire affair is that this confusion is exactly what performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) really do; they create a game of shadows where it’s hard to know what to believe. The rush to judgement speaks to a larger need that people have for certainty, and what’s often most upsetting about allegations of PED use is that there is little certainty — not about the performances, and not about those who performed.
In Jeptoo’s case, it’s really hard to reconcile her with our image of a drug cheat. It’s much easier to look for others to blame, and to say, as Canova did:
“…I think she is a VICTIM of some ignorance, and of somebody ABUSING of her ignorance for personal advantage.”
Jeptoo just doesn’t strike us as the type of person who would knowingly, even cynically take EPO. But what does a drug cheat look like? Does a drug cheat always look and act like a Hollywood villain? But what if drug cheats aren’t all that evil?
You can know whether someone has been given synthetic EPO, but unless they confess, it’s much more difficult to know with certainty whether they intended to cheat or even knew what they were doing. And does that even matter?
In the wake of Jeptoo’s positive test, there have been renewed calls to build a drug testing and control lab in Kenya. It has been pointed out that the World Marathon Majors has been a positive force in this area, by providing funds to test all competitors in the WMM pool. Canova points out that Jeptoo’s test shows that no one is immune from being caught (assuming current drug testing protocol is capable of catching current doping practice).
All of this makes me think that one of the most important reasons for testing is not to catch drug cheats, exactly, but to build confidence in the ones who are NOT cheating. In that sense, having one high-profile athlete fail the test might not be all bad.
But no one, I think, wanted it to be Rita.