The Olympic Marathon Champ Jemima Sumgong Tests Positive: What Does It Mean And Where Do We Go From Here

April 7, 2017

Thursday the big news was broken by Reuters that the “A” sample of the 2016 Olympic champion in the marathon, Jemima Sumgong of Kenya, had tested positive for EPO. If the “B” Sample is positive (ITBSIP), Sumgong will be banned from the sport for four years.

Sumgong’s positive test was a huge development and we break it down for you with the caveat that the “B” sample has to confirm it for it to be official (ITBSIP).

This happened in Rio This happened in Rio

1) It’s a sad day for the sport

With the history of modern sport, no one should be surprised when a prominent athlete in any sport tests positive for performance enhancing drugs.

That being said, when the Olympic marathon champion tests positive for EPO, it’s a sad day for the sport. ITBSIP, what we all witnessed at the Rio Olympics was a sham and that is a shame. We’ve said that track and field is the opposite of professional wrestling: we watch it knowing it may be fake (performance enhancing), but hope it is real. A positive test confirms our worst fears. What we saw in Rio (and 2016 London) was apparently fake.

2) If you want to discount everything from Sumgong’s group, go ahead

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Anytime someone tests positive, it is natural to put under extra scrutiny the training partners of the person who tested positive.

That definitely is the case with Jemima Sumgong because of her training group and its history. If you want to discount everything her group, which in February we called the “top female marathoning group in the world”, has done, we can’t blame you.

Noah Talem in Kenya Noah Talam in Kenya

Sumgong’s coach and the coach of her entire group is her husband Noah Talam. Talam is also  the brother of Sarah Chepchirchir, the woman who had a huge breakthrough to win the Tokyo Marathon in February, running 2:19:47.

When the coach is married to the Olympic champion and is the brother of the #2 runner, it’s much harder to believe that there was some rogue doping going on.

Then throw in the fact that Rita Jeptoo, a Boston and Chicago Marathon champion who tested positive for EPO in 2014, was also a former training partner of Sumgong’s and it is only natural to start discounting what everyone in the group does.

Sumgong (l) and Chepchirchir (r) in Nandi in March Sumgong (l) and Chepchirchir (r) in Nandi in March

Just over two weeks ago, founder Weldon Johnson spent the day with Sumgong and her training group in the Nandi district in Kenya (check back this weekend as we’ll be publishing his report on the camp update see: My Trip to a Possible Doping Camp in Kenya: What I Saw When I Spent a Day with Olympic Champion Jemima Sumgong) and went to Sumgong’s house. The topic of doping came up and the improvement of Sumgong and Chepchirchir was touched upon. The plausible explanation given for their improvement was that after Jeptoo tested positive and former coach Claudio Berardelli left the group, Talam took over and was more involved with the athletes and better understood them. Certainly plausible, until the Olympic champion and wife of the coach tests positive for EPO. ITBSIP, it may be hard for anyone in the group to get in a race.

Sumgong’s attitude towards drugs has evolved over the years. When Rita Jeptoo’s positive test was announced in 2014 at the New York City Marathon, we asked Sumdong about the development and she acted like this was the first she had heard of the news and came across as very naive to the concept of drugs in Kenya.

After she became Olympic champion, when asked in Rio by what she would say to people who were suspicious of her performances, Sumgong was adamant that she was clean, stressing the word seven times in her answer including,We are very clean. We assure you we are clean…. With the company of Rosa Associati, they are clean… With the Kenyan athletes, we are sure we are clean. Myself I am sure I am clean. No doping scandal at all (with me).”

That vehement denial is similar to the one agent/coach Dr. Gabriele Rosa gave to last year in New York ( “We Are Clean” – Dr. Gabriele Rosa Talks About Turning Stanley Biwott and Jemima Sumgong Into Marathon Stars And Doping In Kenya). Dr. Rosa, who is the most famous Westerner to work with Kenyan runners in Kenya (he rose to fame by guiding the career of Paul Tergat), credited Sumgong’s huge improvements to the fact that he came out of retirement to help coach her (with Noah Talam’s help on the ground in Kenya) and was giving her very fast workouts in practice.

In New York, Dr. Rosa also insisted Rita Jeptoo’s coach Claudio Beradelli had no idea Jeptoo was doping (a claim that was backed up by a Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling that says Jeptoo kept her doping hidden from him) but he harshly criticized Berardelli for not being smart enough to realize his athlete was on drugs based off of how well she was running as Dr. Rosa said, “What I say to Claudio [was], ‘Why are you every day twice per day with the athletes and you are not able to understand [they are doping]?’

Well Dr. Rosa, we ask you the same question, “How are you with the athletes twice per day and not able to understand they are doping?”

(Editor’s note: The Rosas have issued a statement that in part says, this is a “dramatic moment for Kenya and for our entire movement. The news has shocked us and we distance ourselves from what happened… doping in Kenya has become a plague, because of unscrupulous Kenyans doctors who approach the athletes.”

Since the initial publication of this story, Gabriele Rosa’s comments about Claudio Beradelli were added)

More: 2016 LRC “We Are Clean” – Dr. Gabriele Rosa Talks About Turning Stanley Biwott and Jemima Sumgong Into Marathon Stars And Doping In Kenya

The World Marathon Majors money no doubt would have gone to help pay for Sumgong's unfinished house The World Marathon Majors money no doubt would have gone to help pay for Sumgong’s unfinished house

3) Drug testing is getting better in Kenya; bravo, World Marathon Majors

A lot of people in the sport talk about clean sport, but the Abbott World Marathon Majors actually did something about it. Back in March 2015, on the heels of Rita Jeptoo’s positive EPO test the year before, the World Marathon Majors (WMM) announced that, in cooperation with the IAAF, it would fund out-of-competition testing for approximately 150 athletes a minimum of six times per year. That extra funding paid off as Sumgong was nailed by one of those out-of-competition tests in Kenya (David Monti reports that the test was in February).

It is very important to note that Sumgong tested positive in an out-of-competition test — just as Jeptoo did back in 2014. For years, one of the biggest blind spots in drug testing has been out-of-competition testing in Ethiopia and Kenya — training meccas where it’s hard (and expensive) to test athletes. Sumgong’s positive test is evidence that out-of-competition testing in those locales is improving.

But there’s still a long way to go. The WMMs only subsidize testing of marathoners in their pool, so that means no middle distance runners (not to mention sprinters/jumpers/field eventers).  And the fact that Sumgong only got popped now (ITBSIP) shows that you can cheat and still beat the tests (unless you naively believe that she only started taking EPO after she won London and the Olympics).

And speaking of the World Marathon Majors, ITBSIP this was a very costly mistake for Sumgong. She had already wrapped up the World Marathon Majors Series X title and its $500,000 first place prize. To get that money, all she had to do was not test positive for drugs.

The Sign Outside of Sumgong's Training Camp The sign outside of Sumgong’s training camp (Photo via IAAF Day in the Life Project)

4) The Rosas have some serious explaining to do

(Editor’s note: The Rosas have issued a statement that in part says, this is a “dramatic moment for Kenya and for our entire movement. The news has shocked us and we distance ourselves from what happened… doping in Kenya has become a plague, because of unscrupulous Kenyans doctors who approach the athletes.”)

We touched on this in point #2 but want to expand. Sumgong is the fourth athlete represented by Rosa & Associati, the agency operated by father and son Gabriele and Federico Rosa, to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. In 2012, Mathew Kisorio tested positive for steroids. Rita Jeptoo tested positive for EPO in 2014, 800 runner Agatha Jeruto tested positive for Norandrosterone in 2015 and now Sumgong has been popped for EPO.

Kisorio said that Federico Rosa was not involved in his doping. And last year, when the Court of Arbitration for sport upheld Jeptoo’s four-year ban, it said that Jeptoo received EPO from a doctor, but that she hid the visits from her coach and manager.

Federico Rosa was arrested in Kenya last year and charged with aiding Jeptoo’s doping. Rosa denied any involvement and those charges were dropped in November. And when’s Robert Johnson spoke to Gabriele Rosa at last year’s New York City Marathon about the development of Sumgong and 2015 NYC champ Stanley Biwott, he told us the following:

We are clean…we are near to the finish of everything.”

There are three possible explanations here, and none of them are good for the Rosas.

     i) The Rosas are incompetent

Four athletes from their stable have tested positive. If the Rosas truly aren’t involved, they have done a poor job monitoring their athletes and stressing the importance of competing clean. And if they’ve made any changes since the Kisorio/Jeptoo busts, they don’t seem to be working as their athletes keep getting popped.

     ii) The Rosas are indifferent to doping

It’s possible that the Rosas don’t keep close tabs on their athletes and/or aren’t concerned with whether they dope or not.

     iii) The Rosas are involved with doping

Sumgong and her husband Talam (photo from IAAF Day in the Life) Sumgong and her husband Talam (photo from IAAF Day in the Life)

This, obviously, would be the most troubling situation. This would mean that the Rosas lied, repeatedly. Worse, the Rosas manage a ton of high-profile studs — Asbel Kiprop, Bedan Karoki, Dickson Chumba, Paul Tanui and Stanley Biwott, to name just a few. And those are just the current athletes. In the past, they’ve worked with the likes of Paul Tergat and Sammy Wanjiru. If the Rosas are helping to dope their athletes, that suddenly makes anyone working with them questionable.

Strangely, the only person who comes out of this looking better is Sumgong’s former coach Claudio Berardelli. Berardelli also coached Kisorio and Jeptoo but denied involvement in their doping. We have no idea what to think anymore, but Berardelli clearly wasn’t the linchpin in the doping.

Gabriele and Federico Rosa, it’s time to tell the truth. Either admit you’ve been asleep at the wheel while your athletes have doped with impunity or admit that you helped facilitate it.

5) It’s time to get to the bottom of this — was the Rita Jeptoo investigation a sham?

After Rita Jeptoo was charged with doping, eventually both her coach and agent were arrested and later cleared by Kenyan authorities. The Court of Arbitration in Sport said “that she hid the visits to the doctor in question from her manager and coach.”

This may have been the case, but assuming their is a link between Jeptoo’s positive and Sumgong’s “A” sample positive, clearly the investigation did not get to the bottom of who was providing Jeptoo drugs.

When the charges against Federico Rosa were dropped Jere Longman of the NYTimes reported, “the reasons were not fully explained publicly.” It’s time for the Kenyan authorities to get to the bottom of this.

Sumgong Was All Smiles in the Tea Plantations Last Mnoth Sumgong was all smiles in the tea plantations last month

6) EPO works on Kenyans

Want proof of how EPO makes you faster? Check out Sumgong’s career progression (ITBSIP). She took up the marathon in 2006 at age 21, running 2:35 to win her debut at the Las Vegas Marathon. From 2006 through 2012, she never ran faster than 2:28 across her first six career marathons. In her next two career marathons, at age 28, she improved by almost eight minutes, running 2:23:27 for the win at the 2013 Rotterdam Marathon, followed by 2:20:48 for second (behind Jeptoo) at the 2013 Chicago Marathon. She remained one of the world’s best for the next two years before making another leap in 2016 and winning the two most competitive marathons in the world — London and the Olympics.

In case you are wondering about Sumgong’s training partner/sister-in-law Sarah Chepchirchir, who in February won the Tokyo Marathon, here’s her progression. She ran 69:27 for the half marathon in 2010 at age 26, improving to 68:07 in 2011. She then ran 68:34 in 2012, but from 2013 to 2015 never ran faster than 69:38.

Then in 2016, a year in which she turned 32 years old, she decided to take up the marathon. She ran 2:30 in her debut in Hamburg in April, then improved to 2:24 in Lisbon in marathon #2 in October. In December, she ran a half marathon pb of 67:52 and followed that up in Tokyo with another huge marathon pb of 2:19. We’d like to believe that Chepchirchir is clean, but given her dramatic recent improvement and her close association with Sumgong, there are a lot of questions about her right now. We suggest that however often the WMM is testing Chepchirchir out of competition, they double it.

Discuss on our forums: The emperor has no clothes: Jemima Sumgong has tested positive for EPO!!!

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story noted that steepler Jairus Birech, distance runner Mercy Cherono and 800 runner Eunice Sum were represented by the Rosas. That is no longer the case. 

The initial version of this story did not contain Gabriele Rosa’s comments about Claudio Beradelli.)

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