By Jonathan Gault
May 21, 2019
On Tuesday, the Athletics Integrity Unit announced that Bahrain’s Eunice Kirwa, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist in the marathon, has been provisionally suspended after testing positive for EPO. That means that the top two finishers from the 2016 Olympic marathon have been busted for EPO, as gold medalist Jemima Sumgong tested positive in February 2017 and was ultimately banned from the sport for eight years after lying and falsifying medical records while trying to proclaim her innocence.
The 35-year-old Kirwa, a three-time winner of the Nagoya Marathon, owns personal bests of 66:46 in the half marathon and 2:21:17 in the marathon. She also earned a bronze medal in the marathon at the 2015 World Championships and a gold at the 2014 Asian Games. Her most recent race was a win at the Macau Marathon in December 2017.
Kirwa is the wife of Joshua Kemei, who also coaches half marathon world record holder Abraham Kiptum, who last month was suspended by the AIU for a biological passport violation.
Quick takes below:
The 2016 Olympic women’s marathon is now an infamously dirty race
In recent years, the 2012 Olympic 1500 women’s final has earned the unofficial title of “dirtiest women’s race in history,” with four of the competitors having their results stripped for doping and two others serving doping bans at one point in their career. The 2016 Olympic marathon is now in the discussion for that title — just as with the 2012 Olympic 1500 final, both the gold and silver medalists have been suspended for doping.
The tragic part of this race, however, is that the medals stolen by Sumgong and Kirwa are unlikely to be stripped. Aslı Çakır Alptekin and Gamze Bulut, the first two women across the line in the 2012 1500 final, were eventually stripped of their medals. But since Sumgong and Kirwa both failed EPO tests after the Olympics, and the IAAF needs to prove that they were doping prior to Rio 2016 in order to strip their medals. Considering we’ve heard nothing on that front regarding Sumgong, who tested positive over two years ago, it’s unlikely that she or Kirwa will be forced to give up those medals.
Frankly, that’s ridiculous, particularly in the case of Sumgong. No one starts doping six months after becoming Olympic champion. The fact that she is still listed as the Olympic marathon champion is an insult to clean sport.
It’s also a shame for the women who finished behind Sumgong and Kirwa in Rio. Mare Dibaba was third in that race and has never been linked to PEDs, nor has fourth placer Tirfi Tsegaye. Fifth placer Volha Mazuronak has drawn scrutiny for being coached by notorious doper Liliya Shobukhova and for her unbelievable splits at the 2016 London Marathon.
And then there are the Americans. At the time, the performances of Shalane Flanagan (6th), Des Linden (7th), and Amy Cragg (9th) were historically significant — it was the first time the US had put three women in the top 10 of the Olympic marathon. Now that the top two women in that race have been caught as dopers, the Americans’ results look even more impressive.
Des Linden knew in Rio that she wasn’t competing on a level playing field
When I spoke to Linden before the 2017 Boston Marathon, shortly after the Sumgong news broke, I asked her whether she was surprised by Sumgong’s positive test. This is what she told me:
“I was more surprised in August that she was on the start line (at the Olympics). I think there’s patterns, there’s trends, there’s people in groups that you’re just not surprised about. I think after we crossed the finish line, Amy, Shalane, and I sat around and chatted about the race. I said it, like, ‘Within one year, we’ll all have bumped up two spots.’ There’s one. Pick your name for the other one. So no, I’m not surprised.”
It took over two years, and the Americans may never officially get bumped up, but Linden knew what she was talking about. It must be incredibly frustrating for an athlete to finish the biggest race of your life knowing you’ve been beaten by cheats.
Testing in Kenya is improving, but others need to be held responsible
While it can be frustrating for fans of the sport to hear news like Kirwa’s bust — yet more proof that races at the highest level of track & field are not being run fairly — there are positives (pardon the pun) to be drawn from it. For starters, it shows that the focus on improving testing in Kenya — where Kirwa was based — is working. The World Marathon Majors have poured money into the Athletics Integrity Unit to improve out-of-competition testing, particularly in East Africa. Last year, a lab in Nairobi became the first in East Africa to receive WADA approval for blood testing. The result? Three top athletes — Sarah Chepchirchir, Cyrus Rutto, and Abraham Kiptum — have been caught via ABP violations in the first half of 2019 alone.
In addition, the fact that Olympic medalists such as Kirwa, Sumgong, Asbel Kiprop, and Ruth Jebet have been caught shows that the AIU has the ability to bring down some of the biggest names in the sport.
Taking down individual athletes is great, but at times it can feel like plugging holes on a sinking ship. Busting a Sumgong is great, but if there’s a Kirwa or a Chepchirchir to take her place, has the sport really moved forward? For meaningful progress, the culture needs to change, which means the people supplying these athletes with PEDs need to be found and punished. Shoe companies, coaches, and agents all have a role to play in shaping the culture as well — not just the athletes.
Speaking of agents, Kirwa’s is Marc Corstjens. His clients have now completed the triple crown of EPO doping since the start of 2018. First, his client Ruth Jebet, like Kirwa, a Kenyan-turned-Bahraini Olympic medallist, was busted for EPO. The 2016 Olympic champion and former WR holder’s suspension was announced in July of 2018 was backdated to February. Then 2017 World Championship 800 bronze medalist Kipyegon Bett tested positive for EPO in August of 2018. And now Kirwa. Those are three of Corstjens’ biggest clients and all three have been busted for EPO since the start of 2018.
If you’re an agent, one positive test for a client is a bad sign. But three? Either you’re involved in doping the athletes yourself, you’re indifferent to doping to the point where multiple clients of yours are choosing to dope, or you’re extremely unlucky.
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