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Under the shadow of doping

Under the shadow of doping

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) recently said that it has identified about half a dozen Ethiopian athletes that used performance-enhancing drugs. This is a shocking news not just for Ethiopians but also for those who draw a bead on achieving global success on the running tracks. Now the shadow of speculation and uncertainties hung over the fate of Ethiopian athletics. The world has for long praised sporting achievements on the basis of sportsmanship and fair play– something that is not new for Ethiopian athletes. However, the latest scandal has led some to believe that Ethiopian athleticism is being besmirched by the very enemy of sports– doping, reports Tibebeselassie Tigabu.

The most unforgettable year for Ethiopian athletics fans is 2001. This was the year long distance legend Haile Gebreselassie experienced his first defeat after eight unbeaten years. Many Ethiopians, who could not attend the world championship at the commonwealth stadium in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, were waiting anxiously for Haile's signature last lap sprint. The trio – Haile Gebreselassie, Assefa Mezgebu and Charles Kamati of Kenya – separated from the group picking up pace. Finally, it was not the king of long distance who dashed to victory. Rather it was Kamati, who sprinted leaving Haile and his compatriot Assefa 150 meters behind. To the dismay of fans, unlike the Sydney Olympics where Haile defeated another Kenyan, Paul Tergat, the Ethiopians could not outrun Kamati.

Ethiopians, who were glued to their TV sets, saw what happened in utter disbelief. The unbeatable Haile – winner of five consecutive world tiles and countless gold medals – had to settle for bronze. People all over the world felt that it was the end of an era and even some mainstream media outlets wrote saying: “So Haile Gebreselassie is human after all.” The result was not something Ethiopians could accept. And in a twisted manner, an erroneous news report claimed that Charles Kamati was disqualified because of doping and Haile Gebreselassie was again the champion. This was a laughable matter especially knowing that Assefa Mezgebu was the one who took the silver medal. But who could blame them? There could never be any rational explanation for Ethiopians when it comes to athletics since it one of the things that is close to their heart. Athletics is the unifying agent among Ethiopians transcending many gaps. The overwhelming sentimental emotions are witnessed when Ethiopian mothers pray to their patron saints so that their athletes can win. Pride and patriotism is high among Ethiopians and athletes have a key role to play, which is by waving the Ethiopian flag in the international arena.

The legacy of Ethiopian athletics is larger than life starting with a barefooted runner, Abebe Bikila, who won the marathon at the Rome Olympics, the spirited Derartu Tulu–the first African woman gold medalist–and others who have written Ethiopian athletics history in Gold.

After the unfortunate defeat of Haile in 2001, a least publicized doping incident happened. Alene Emere a long distance runner was suspended in 2002 for using a banned substance named nandrolone; which is used for muscle growth, appetite stimulation and increased red blood cell production and bone density. Moving forward to 2016, Ethiopian athletes are now under the spotlight because of doping scandal which is shaking its athletics legacy from the ground. 

According to Ayalew Tilahun (MD), head of the Medical Department at the Ministry of Youth and Sports, six Ethiopian athletes are under investigation being suspected of doping. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) sent all the documents with proof of evidence to the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, the athletes and their respective managers. It was in 1989 that the IAAF and the other Olympic federations signed a joint declaration against doping. According to the declaration, there will be random and target testing out-of competition. In that regard–on a regular basis–the IAAF conducts anti-doping program including in- and out-of-competition tests, random tests and country tests.

Supervised by the IAAF–in collaboration with local agencies–notifications are sent to national teams regarding the status of athletes. Following these procedures the athletes under question were tested positive for banned substances. IAAF's drug testing is classified as A and B samples. According to the guidelines of IAAF, all athletes in the registered testing pool list, who are subject to out-of-competition testing by the IAAF, are required to comply with the whereabouts requirements set out in IAFF anti-doping rules and regulations. This includes providing quarterly whereabouts filing and being available for no advance notice testing during the designated 60 minute time slot. The IAAF registered testing pool is reviewed and updated on a regular basis.

According to Dr Ayalew, the Ethiopian Athletics Federation reviewed all the documents to make sure these substances are under the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) 2016 banned list. He states that the Ethiopian Athletics Federation fully cooperated in investigating the suspected athletes and has been corresponding accordingly. The athletes were asked questions like if they had taken these substances, the location they took it and their suppliers. Since it is an ongoing investigation, Dr Ayalew states that the process–until the final verdict–is handled with a very strict confidentiality though there were many people who requested for the identities to be revealed.

Now the first notification came from IAAF regarding the three athletes that should be provisionally suspended. According to Dr Ayalew, this means that those athletes cannot participate in local or international competitions until the final verdict. This decision was also communicated to the three anonymous Ethiopian athletes. The final verdict will be made public after the result of their B-sample test and, according to Dr Ayalew, the athletes can travel to Lausanne and observe the whole process of the B-sample test.

According to experts, B-samples usually do not change anything. The deviation is minimal and is almost 0.1 percent. The type of punishment will be decided after considering the degree of violation and the substances they used.

It is not only in Ethiopia that doping scandal is under the spotlight. In January the biggest international doping scandal was exposed. According to media reports, the crisis engulfing the IAAF escalated as four of its senior officials were sanctioned on corruption charges. This led to the lifetime ban of three IAAF officials for doping cover-ups including Papa Massata Diack, the son of former IAAF president Lamine Diack. The other shocking news was Gabriel Dolle, who was the IAAF anti- doping director. He has been given a five-year ban for his involvement in the doping scandal.

They were punished for their corrupt involvement with Russian athlete Liliya Shobukhova–the second fastest female marathon runner in history and a winner of the London Marathon in 2010. According to the charge, Shobukhova had given close to half a million dollars to senior Russian officials in exchange for covering up violations in her athlete biological passport i.e. hiding positive drugs tests.

Brought in by WADA in 2009, the passport aims to reveal the effects of doping rather than detect the substance or method itself. It is an electronic document about an athlete that contains certain markers throughout their career. If these changes dramatically, it alerts officials that the athlete might be doping.

So–having bribed the officials–Shobukhova ran in London and subsequently in the Chicago Marathon. She was banned for 38 months but that was reduced to seven months in recognition of the assistance she provided to WADA. Last year a German TV documentary allegedly exposed that many as 99 percent of Russian athletes were guilty of doping.

In addition to the Russian crisis, the IAAF has also been hit by claims that it failed to follow up on hundreds of suspicious blood tests from 2011.

Though it is only recently that the issue of doping has become a major topic of discussion the habit traces back to the 1920s. According to Dr Ayalew, there are nine classes of banned drugs and the most common ones are stimulants and hormones. “These are dangerous substances with adverse effects of weakening the cells, attacking DNA and genes and causing cardiovascular complications and ulcers. In general, it will poison many of the body organs,” Dr Ayalew told The Reporter.

There have been major drug scandals including the case of American cyclist Lance Armstrong. In January 2013 the retired cyclist surprisingly admitted to doping in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, and was stripped of his seven Tour de France tittles and was banned from sports for life. Though it was not highly publicized like the current scandal, there have been a few Ethiopians athletes who were suspended in the past including Eyerusalem Kuma (2013) and Shitaye Gemechu (2009) for using EPO–a glycoprotein hormone that controls red blood cell production. The two were suspended for two years. Though the human body produces Erythropoietin naturally, according to Dr Ayalew, it is also produced by drug companies. These are substances which increase bulk, strength and red blood cell count giving athletes more energy and high growth hormone which builds muscles. In addition, it has been scientifically proven that EPO can lead to death.

Similar to these athletes, in 2008, marathon runner Ambesse Tolossa was also suspended for using morphine. This information was deliberately hidden from the public by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation for various reasons. Dr Ayalew says that they [officials of the Ethiopian Football Federation] were shocked after learning that Ethiopians were identified for using banned substances and did not want to publicize it. “Imagine what it means when Ethiopian athletes, who train vigorously and are a symbol of heroism, are entangled in this. So what we chose is not to publicize the incident,” Dr Ayalew says.

Looking at the escalating situation he says: “I think that was our biggest mistake and we are paying the price.”

There have been researches conducted as to why Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes are the best in long distance running, which also led many foreigners come to the highlands of the Horn of Africa and train. Internationally, Ethiopian athletes are famed for being unbeatable but this latest scandal has tainted the whole image.

For Sileshi Sihin–a prominent athlete, an Olympic medalist and president of the Ethiopian Athletes Association–this shift in mindset was caused due to the finance surrounding it. He says that there are many international races where athletes can make millions and the target for many is making it by any means necessary.

Sileshi says that for some two years there have been rumors and suspicions that Ethiopian athletes have been taking performance-enhancing drugs.

According to Sileshi, athletes who are included in the national team do not take any medication without consulting Dr Ayalew. However, the fate of athletes, who work individually with their own managers, lies on the people close to them. Sileshi believes that there is a huge gap when it comes to being informed with regards to banned substances. “It is easy to manipulate the athletes and to allure them with the dream of becoming rich,” Sileshi told The Reporter.

Dr Ayalew, who closely works with the athletes, believes that there is lack of education but what amazes him is the lack of transparency. During testing there are questionnaires that should be filled and one of the questions is whether an athlete took any kind of medication. According to Dr Ayalew, Ethiopian athletes always answer the question by saying “no”. “There is a 14-day period, which gives athletes a gap to reconsider their answer, but their response remains the same,” he says. According to Dr Ayalew, athletes can take medications but the medications they take might have banned substances. If that is the case they have to notify the Ethiopian Athletics Federation and the IAAF. In some instances, athletes would be exempted from punishment after receiving a warning but in the case of Ethiopian athletes Dr Ayalew says that they usually deny and then concede after it is too late. He mentions the case of one of the recently suspected athletes Sintayehu Merga. According to Dr Ayalew, the athlete claimed to have taken medication for typhus and typhoid and accused the Ethiopian Federation for not backing him up against IAAF. Regarding this incident, the Ethiopian Athletics Federation attached his proof of claims and sent it to the IAAF. Dr Ayalew says that the result was not what he claims to be but was rather a banned substance. With the exception of this athlete, Dr Ayalew says that the other five athletes were cooperative and they gave detailed information including their suppliers.

“In the past there have been more than five athletes who have been suspended over the years but this is the first time we got all the detailed information,” Dr Ayalew says.

The rest of the world is using dangerous substances such as the less commonly known as blood doping. This is a system where blood is removed from the body and injected back in to boost oxygen levels. According to Dr Ayalew, Ethiopian athletes are not far from the international phenomenon. In fact, their findings suggest that they are using very expensive and inaccessible banned substances. Some of them include sex hormones such as testosterone, steroids and stanzolol. The current suspected athletes also tested positive for steroids, which enables athletes to train harder, recover more quickly and build more muscles. However, these drugs have adverse effects, which eventually lead to kidney failure, baldness, low sperm count for men, increased facial hair and deepened voices for women.

Dr Ayalew states that there is also a wide range of doping including medium drugs, which will temporarily enhance performance. Athletes are heard saying that they took these banned substances without knowing what the effects are and many of these drugs are inaccessible and expensive. So the question is where did they get these drugs from?

According to Dr Ayalew, in a recent discussion, they found out that the athletes get their supply from various channels including relatives, managers, trainers, other athletes, medical practitioners and Ethiopians in the diaspora. For Dr Ayalew the main suppliers are foreigners who enter this country on a tourist visa. He says that a certain Turkish citizen, who is banned from any kind of sporting activity by the IAAF because of his involvement in smuggling the drugs in other countries, has been the main supplier. In addition, Dr Ayalew claims that foreigners living in Bekoji, Bale Mountains and Sululta also provide these banned substances.

“Foreigners, who are not medical professionals, are engaged in practicing medicine. We are at a critical stage. It feels like war has been declared on us. We cannot afford to lose our athletes,” Dr Ayalew says.

Since Ethiopia is the land of many successful athletes, a lot of foreigners come to this country for various reasons including training and managing athletes. For Sileshi this is one of the biggest risks athletes take. “The athletes don't have any information about these people and I think it is the work of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation to verify their identities and to know about their accreditation process,” Sileshi says.

According to Sileshi, the lion's share of the problem falls on lack of information; however, the veteran athlete is not naïve. He says that the athletes should not be off the hook. “Some of the athletes are looking for a get-rich-quick scheme,” Sileshi says.

While many are heard shifting the blame on managers, Gemedu Dedefo, an agent for Jani Dimadona and a trainer for Imane Merga, Lemi Tsegaye and Tsegaye Mekonnen highly opposes this perspective.

He strongly believes that managers would not dare risk the athletes' health in order to get financial benefits. While he is confused with the current doping crisis the main reason for him is access to information. He mentions one case as an example. “The athletes, who were suspected of doping, were said to have used meldonium. The World Anti-Doping Agency only added this drug to its banned substances list on January 1, 2016 and many Ethiopian athletes were tested after January 5. These athletes do not have access to information let alone an updated medical knowledge. We did not even know that this substance was under the banned list. So for me the athletes should not be blamed and it is very painful for them,”  Gemedu told The Reporter.

This week, Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova announced that she failed a drug test at the Australian Open, a tennis major that took place January 18-31, 2016. Sharapova admitted to using meldonium, a drug used to treat issues related to poor blood flow and which also enhances endurance. Similarly, Ethiopian Endeshaw Negesse and Ethiopian-born Swedish athlete Abeba Aregawi have recently tested positive for meldonium.

According to Gemedu, many of the athletes are very scared and they actually are very careful even when taking simple antibiotics.

Though he claims that many of the athletes are very careful, he is not fully confident and rather says that there could be some mistakes. “Compared to the number of athletes in Ethiopia doping is almost non-existent. Though most of them are careful some of them take these substances thinking they are vitamins,” Gemedu says.

The current situation has been shocking for Gemedu especially with regards to the number of athletes under investigation but he still has a hard time accepting that they took these banned substances assuming that it would enhance their performance. “I work with these athletes and one thing I can say is that they are really scared and I don’t know how this could have happened,” Gemedu told The Reporter.

Gemedu says that in other countries athletes take extreme and sophisticated measures to try to tamper with their biological passport. Dr Ayalew also states that extreme cases of cheating include using fake genitalia during urine test.

Now, rumors are circulating including the identity of the athletes and one of the frequently mentioned name is Tsegaye Mekonnen. According to Gemedu, who is also Tsegaye's trainer, this is negatively affecting the athletes since it is tarnishing their name.

Apart from their identity, the other risk is if they will be stripped off what they gained during the years. Haile Gebreselassie, on his part, says that many of the athletes will not be stripped off their wealth since what they made is at private games but if it was from world championships and Olympics the story would have been different. Apart from the athletes, the county’s image and the fate of the athletics federation are also major concerns. Russia was suspended by the IAAF last year after WADA commissioned a report, which found proof of doping and cover ups. Ethiopia is one of signatories of WADA; an organization which was established in 1999 composed and funded by sports bodies and governments of the world with a mission to lead a collaborative worldwide movement for ensuring doping free sports.  While Kenya is facing a possible suspension Sileshi suggests that the Ethiopian Athletics Federation ought to fully cooperate and implement strict measures.

Though he believes that the image of Ethiopian athletics is tarnished the main concern for him is to save the coming generation of athletes and he strongly believes those athletes will re-build it.

On the other hand, secretary-general of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, Bililign Mekoya, stresses that the solution is education and advocacy at the national level. Though there have been cases of doping, Billing thinks that it was never a major concern for Ethiopian athletics. So, apart from preliminary awareness programs there has not been any major work that was executed as part of a national agenda. “This phenomenon shows how the country is at risk. The major work, apart from raising awareness on banned substances, is to rebuild the self-confidence of the athletes and letting them know that they can be winners naturally,” Bililign says. Apart from that, Bililign says that strict measures will be taken on foreigners without proper accreditation in collaboration with the responsible stakeholders.

Ed.'s Note: Dereje Tegenaw of The Reporter has contributed to this report.