Doping Practices

Will Increased Scrutiny Reveal Doping Practices Within the Athletics Community?

For decades, Ethiopia has enjoyed a highly regarded position within athletics, especially in long-distance running. This prominent role, however, may prove to be a liability in the eyes of some anti-doping activists who believe the successes of the country’s athletes warrants heightened scrutiny in doping investigations. Data from the leading anti-doping agency suggests these activists may be right: in 2013 alone, nearly 2,000 sanctions were levied for doping infractions in nearly 90 different sports around the world. What will this mean for Ethiopia’s athletics programme? EBR’s adjunct staff writer, Abiy Wendifraw, spoke with key stakeholders to learn more about what’s being done to address this issue.

Mare Dibaba, a 26-year-old Ethiopian long-distance runner, knew she would inherit the 2014 Chicago Marathon title and the USD50,000 prize if Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo failed to appeal her ban for doping. But that reality did not please her.
When she appeared on CCTV Africa last year, Mare, who won the marathon at the IAAF World Championships held in Beijing in 2015, looked upset and dejected. This is because she won the title only because Jeptoo’s title was revoked due to a doping scandal, as opposed to winning solely on her own athletic merits. She knew that no justice would ever restore her stolen special moment that she should have deservedly enjoyed.
The news shocked some in the athletics community. Even world-class runner Haile Gebresilassie chimed in regarding Mare’s situation and others like it. “I am sorry for the things happening in this sport,” says Haile. “When you win a gold medal, the thing you would enjoy the most is that special moment while you celebrate running [an] extra round in the venue, being cheered and congratulated by the spectators. [Sometimes] the person who finishes first fails the drug test and the title goes to the runner-up. But that does not make sense to me. Sport should be won by an athlete’s natural talent and hard work, not by medical doctors’ wisdom.”
Following Russia’s suspension for their “state-sponsored” doping programme, people are demanding that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) should become more aggressive in order to protect the sport. The ‘why only Russia?’ sentiments expressed by Russian whistle-blower Andrey Baranov made many curious about what is happening in countries known for their world-class athletes. “There should be similar investigations in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia too,” Baranov told The Guardian last November.
According to a report released by WADA in 2015, there is good reason to be suspicious of doping worldwide, not just in countries with high-performing athletes. Based on data gathered in 2013, the report shows “that 1,953 sanctions were levied for [anti-doping rules violations] that were committed [that year].” The ubiquity of these infractions was also striking: Violations were found among athletes and support staff in 89 sports from 115 countries.
On WADA’s official website, the group’s leader expressed his dissatisfaction with the results. “With close to 2,000 sanctions in one year and almost every sport represented, it’s evident that doping still represents a huge threat to modern-day sport,” said WADA President, Craig Reedie. “Protecting clean athletes and upholding the integrity of sport remains WADA’s number one priority. In light of the report’s findings, WADA and its partners around the world must continue to deter current athletes from doping; and, crucially, educate future generations — the athletes of tomorrow — from ever considering doping as an option,” he added.
Still, in spite of the global push for greater inquiry into doping, data suggests that the act is not as prominent in Ethiopia as it may be in other countries. There were five athletes who were banned for taking performance-enhancing drugs between 2009 and 2012. The fact that no super-elite athletes were found guilty of doping seems to demonstrate that the problem doesn’t have a significant presence in the upper echelons of athletics.
Experts in the sport believe that the country should not disregard the potential of a doping culture developing within the athletics community. According to Solomon Meaza, Secretary General of the Ethiopian National Anti-Doping Organisation (EthNADO), the country’s ‘relatively good’ reputation might not necessarily indicate that everything is above board. Solomon mentions a new scientific tool called Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) might possibly destroy Ethiopia’s well-kept reputation within the sporting world.
ABP is an electronic record of an athlete that monitors selected biological variables over time. According to WADA, ABP shifts the focus of testing in order to “indirectly reveal the effects of doping rather than attempting to detect the doping substance or method itself.”
Other forms of testing aren’t foolproof, since they don’t always catch athletes who use certain drugs on a low-dose basis or newer drugs that may not yet be recognised by certain doping assessments. Solomon says this could prove problematic to some athletes: “The successful athletes we’ve known for years might find themselves in trouble by this tool.”
Some experts say that enquiry into Ethiopia’s athletics programme is logical. “We don’t say we are completely free from the problem,” says Ayalew Tilahun (MD), a sport physician with vast experience. “But if Ethiopia is under WADA’s scrutiny, it is not because of the doping scandals in Russia or Kenya. Being the home of world-class athletes by itself is more than enough to fall under heightened scrutiny.”
However, Ayalew says that Ethiopia has a good reputation when it comes to drug-free athletes. “In the last two years alone all our 38 best performing athletes took the doping test and were free [of illicit drugs],” he stated.
Sileshi Sihine, the two-time men’s 10,000-meter Olympic silver medallist, is confident that his compatriots will demonstrate their innocence through any investigation the WADA may conduct. “I do not expect any shocking findings,” he says. “Never expect such a deliberate and organised doping programme in Ethiopia. Only our young and less experienced runners may possibly find themselves in trouble.”
He says that he practices extra caution in light of drug testing, even stating that when he needs health treatment he consults a sports medicine physician before taking any prescribed medicine. “I will definitely talk to Ayalew. He is always there to help my friends and me,” he says.
Solomon, who meets many young athletes at different anti-doping sensitisation workshops, shares Sileshi’s concerns. “Their poor understanding about the issue makes me worried,” he said.
Haile, on the other hand, believes that the experienced runners know how to protect themselves. “My athlete friends and I were too suspicious and cautious about very minor things.”
He continues: “I trust WADA more,” pointing out the recent revelation of the IAAF’s involvement in doping scandals. “But it is not WADA’s action that forces Ethiopian athletes to behave. Our social values and virtues dictate us to stand against cheating.”
The recent visit by WADA representatives was focused, at least in part, on encouraging stakeholders to identify their priorities and exert significant effort on some sports. Dubie Jilo, a figure among the Ethiopian Athletics Federation (EAF) leadership, admits that WADA wants them to improve. “They advised us to strengthen the anti-doping campaigns and to test more athletes in or out of competition.”
According to Solomon, the number of athletes EthNADO tests annually typically does not exceed 45. “Now WADA ordered us to test around 2,000 athletes annually,” he said. Most of the tests target the fast-improving runners who are already noticed by WADA experts abroad.
However, the potential for doping doesn’t just exist in athletics – a field in which Ethiopia enjoys some of its greatest successes. In 2013, eight of the country’s national football team players were also forced to go through doping tests following ‘The Waliyas’ qualification for the 2013 African Cup of Nations in South Africa. Now Solomon’s office is urged to take more samples from the local championships too. The Federation is showing the determination to take serious actions against those who fail the doping test. “We will definitely target the managers of those athletes too,” Dubie said.
Ayalew states that WADA representatives encouraged the country’s effort to establish the Ethiopian National Anti-Doping Agency (ENADA), which is expected to have its own regional anti-doping bodies.
But in their day-long discussion held in the Hilton Hotel at the end of 2015, WADA delegates assessed and suggested the Agency should not run under the Ministry of Youth and Sport.
Rather, WADA wants ENADA to be “independent” and work with the Ministry, the National Olympic Committee, the EAF and other sport federations. The delegates will monitor the progress of the Agency and its efforts quarterly, in an attempt to ensure it meets the organisation’s overall goal of creating robust anti-doping practices worldwide. EBR


4th Year • February 16 2016 – March 15 2016 • No. 36

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