Anti-doping rules catch athletes by surprise as low-key AK trials start

Athletes compete during the men's 10000m event at the national trials for the World Athletics Championships at the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi on July 7, 2023.

Photo credit: Simon Maina | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Even the starter’s gun jammed twice, and when it finally blasted, it was a subdued crack of a matchstick.
  • Then the electronic timer jammed before coming back to life 12 seconds after the start of the first event of the day, a drug-free 10,000 metres final.

All was not well right from the start of the opening day of the two-day Athletics Kenya trials for the Budapest World Championships at Nyayo National Stadium on Friday.

Even the starter’s gun jammed twice, and when it finally blasted, it was a subdued crack of a matchstick.

Then the electronic timer jammed before coming back to life 12 seconds after the start of the first event of the day, a drug-free 10,000 metres final.

The cold weather and a handful of fans uncertain of making it back to their homes safely worsened an already ruined day from the Saba Saba rally at Kamukunji grounds followed by skirmishes in town between police and protesters.

The trials for the Budapest World Championships in Athletics were hyped as a celebration of our finest, fireworks of spirits and muscles in 40 years.

But the opening day ended up flat as the cold July day that it was at the Nyayo National Stadium.

Even an ordinary Athletics Kenya Nairobi County meeting is brighter at any given day compared to the trials, once regarded as the second most competitive in the world after the world championships.

Competition and uncertainties were missing. Previously, thousands of Kenyans would throng to Nyayo or Kasarani stadiums to watch champions being vanquished by the unknown in classic cases such as 11-year-old Phillip Mosima taking on giants in Olympic trials in 1988 or Joseph Tengelei’s memorable quote of “how wild is the wild card” after being knocked out of the 1996 Olympics trials when selectors used the wild card rule to name the third athlete instead of the first three to cross the finish line.

The trials, as is the tradition today, are pre-determined with those who run in international circuits always prevailing by meeting qualification standards from this exposure and attain qualifying standards.

That lone ranger warrior who made athletics unpredictable and enjoyable in the past editions was missing yon Friday.

The terraces were empty with less than 500 spectators, a sort of hangover from the success of the weekend meetings at the same venues which would attract as many as 1,000 athletes, tens of thousands of spectators, the Nairobi City Marathon and the mother of them all, Kip Keino Classic Continental Tour.

Obviously, Athletics Kenya failed to publicise the trials, this year celebrating 40 years of athletics excellence, when compared to the slick professionalism mastermined by the Kip Keino Classic.

The “Omanyala effect” was missing. It was a big miss for athletics lovers to watch the hottest athlete in the world today, Faith Kipyegon, stroll to an easy victory in the 5,000 metres or Mary Moraa eclipsing the field in the 400m in setting a new national record of 50 minutes 39 seconds, beating the previous mark of 50:44.

Were all these work of negligence, a hangover of a busy season or athletics losing its mojo?

Unbeknown to the fans, all eyes of those in the know were wary of one man, Thomas Capdevielle, the man responsible for the “mess” which he regretted but this is the only way to drill into the thick-skinned skulls of drug cheats that their days are finally over.

It is a makeover for Kenya Athletics which has grown from purity of human performance to black motor vehicle used engine oil which must be changed to avoid knocking off the most admired athletics production-line in the world.

For the first time in history, the trials were for invited athletes who have undergone Covid-19 antigen-like tests, doping tests of three years ago when one had to take a mandatory swab 72 hours before travel.

The scene at the Nyayo National Stadium on Thursday was akin to boys facing the knife when Capdevielle and his team from Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) came calling unannounced to catch the cheats and spread the message in the most forceful way that No Doping in the trials.

Capdevielle is not just another man. He is the Head of Testing and Compliance and also Deputy Head at the AIU in Monaco. Every athlete invited for the trials was required to have a certificate to show they are clean having undergone at least three out-of-competition dope tests.

Now they were all to be tested again before getting their running bibs, and they will finally be subjected to more random testing on Saturday.

Out-of-competition testing

The AIU, Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK), World Athletics, Kenya Government and Athletics Kenya want to see the return of the fabled image of Kenya as a clean running nation.

A record 140 invited underwent testing on Thursday.

Many who have been subjected to this out-of-competition testing randomly for the last six months obliged.

Some hesitated. Others conveniently cited injuries, and quite a few melted into thin air.

They are not out of the woods yet as they are marked. Their cases will be reviewed but Capdevielle said he could not disclose the course of action which will be taken against them.

He said he is not a Sheriff in town but a good intentioned person from an organisation determined to stamp out the doping menace in which 40 percent of cases reported last year were Kenyans.

Kenya is in Category ‘A’ on the anti-doping watch list as one of the countries with the highest number of athletes violating anti-doping protocols.

He announced that he would like to see the trials re-open to all athletes next year.

And without organised catering, the few Kenyans settled to warm their bodies by feeding on the action on the track and groundnuts from hawkers, hoping there will be more fun and energy on Day Two on Saturday.