Nearly 300 athletes from Kenya have been punished for using banned substances since 2015, tarnishing the country’s image as a running powerhouse.
When Kelvin Kiptum, of Kenya, broke the world marathon record in early October, he threatened a landmark barrier of human possibility: running 26.2 miles in less than two hours in a competitive race.
Kiptum’s time of 2 hours 35 seconds at the Chicago Marathon brought him tantalizingly close to the milestone, a feat achieved once — by a fellow Kenyan in a 2019 exhibition — but only by using pacing and hydration tactics that rendered the performance ineligible for a record.
Yet because Kiptum’s triumph came as Kenyan athletics is struggling with an alarming doping crisis, the 23-year-old record-holder — who has not been accused of doping — found himself discussing not only what he had done in Chicago, but what he had not. The record time, Kiptum told reporters when he returned to Kenya, was the product of running 150 miles or more per week at altitude, not the use of banned substances.
“My secret is training,” he said. “Not any other thing.”
As another handful of top athletes from Kenya arrives to run the New York City Marathon on Sunday, a race that runners from the East African country have dominated over the past decade, they can expect to face similar questions about a doping problem that has led to punishments for nearly 300 Kenyan athletes since 2015, a group that includes former Olympic gold medalists, world champions and world-record holders.
Last year alone, 27 elite Kenyan runners were suspended for doping offenses — a total that amounted to 40 percent of the athletes suspended at the highest echelons of global track and field and distance running in 2022, according to the Athletics Integrity Unit, an independent antidoping agency that monitors international-level competitors. The unit has been tasked by the sports’ top officials to assist in trying to clean up Kenyan running.
“Everyone in Kenya is saying this is a huge problem,” Brett Clothier, the chief executive of the unit, said in an interview. “We’ve just got to fix it.”
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