2021 Boston Marathon champ Diana Kipyokei suspended and her agent doesn’t hold back: “Diana is completely guilty. I am sorry.”

By Jonathan Gault
October 14, 2022

On Friday, the Athletics Integrity Unit announced the provisional suspension of two Kenyan marathoners, Diana Kipyokei and Betty Wilson Lempus, for anti-doping rule violations. Kipyokei, 28, won the 2021 Boston Marathon and was suspended for testing positive at the race for triamcinolone acetonide, a glucocorticoid that is banned in-competition. Lempus, 31, who owns a 65:47 half marathon personal best, tested positive for the same substance. Lempus was not charged for the positive test but an AIU investigation into her explanation resulted in a tampering charge for which she was suspended.

The Boston Athletic Association, which operates the Boston Marathon, provided the following statement regarding Kipyokei:

“As a result of the AIU findings and in conformance with World Athletics and B.A.A. event rules, Kipyokei’s result in the 2021 Boston Marathon will be disqualified, pending the completion of relevant athlete appeals processes.”

Kipyokei won 2021 Boston in 2:24:45. Fellow Kenyan Edna Kiplagat finished second in 2:25:09 and would stand to be elevated to champion should Kipyokei’s suspension be upheld.

What is triamcinolone acetonide?

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Triamcinolone acetonide is classified as a glucocorticoid by the World Anti-Doping Agency, meaning it is not banned out-of-competition. It is also not prohibited when administered via certain methods — such as when it is inhaled or applied topically as a cream — as long as it is “used within the manufacturer’s licensed doses and therapeutic indications.” But if it is administered via a prohibited method (injection, oral, rectal) and shows up on an in-competition test, it constitutes an anti-doping rule violation.

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Triamcinolone acetonide can be used to reduce inflammation but it also has the potential to be abused as a performance-enhancing drug as it can help athletes lose weight, build muscle, and increase endurance. As noted in The Times, cyclists Lance Armstrong and David Millar, both of whom served doping bans, have admitted to using the drug. 5-time Olympic gold medalist Bradley Wiggins also used the drug before his win at the 2012 Tour de France but was not sanctioned after being granted a controversial therapeutic use exemption.

Is Triamcinolone acetonide Kenya’s new super drug?

Triamcinolone acetonide is the same substance that fellow Kenyan Mark Kangogo tested positive for after winning the Sierre-Zinal mountain race in Switzerland in August. Kangogo, who also tested positive for norandrosterone, admitted guilt and accepted a three-year suspension.

The AIU also said it has a further four open investigations into positive tests for triamcinolone acetonide among Kenyan athletes. Including Kipyokei, Lempus, and Kangogo, the AIU said 10 Kenyan athletes have tested positive for triamcinolone acetonide in 2021 or 2022, compared to just two athletes from the rest of the world combined during the same period.

“Diana is completely guilty. I am sorry. She has done something very bad.”

Kipyokei and Lempus share an agent, the Italian Gianni Demadonna, who represents a number of top marathon runners including recent London and Chicago Marathon champions Amos Kipruto and Benson Kipruto.

Demadonna fervently denied any involvement in Kipyokei or Lempus’ positive tests.

“We have a very strong policy in our management that if somebody goes to the hospital, if somebody goes to the chemist and gets a prescription for medicine, they have to send us what they were prescribed,” Demadonna says. “And after, we can tell them, ‘Okay you can go ahead’ or ‘You have to stop because that is a performance-enhancing substance.'”

Demadonna says neither Kipyokei nor Lempus informed him that they were using triamcinolone acetonide and that as a result there was nothing he could do to help them. He no longer represents either athlete.

“We establish a policy: they have to tell us every time they take a medicine,” Demadonna says. “If they don’t tell us, they are guilty. What can I do? I cannot stay with the athletes. I cannot live with them…After 30 years, I am working this business and nobody can say to me you are not correct or you are doing things that are not correct. I can defend myself always without any problem. I am so, so sad about this situation that spoiled my name and spoiled the name of [clean] athletes that are doing their own training – not with something else.”

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Demadonna says that Kipyokei, who trains in Iten under coach Gabriele Nicola, initially told him she had been prescribed triamcinolone acetonide by a doctor but did not tell a consistent story when pressed for more details. He suspects she did something similar when speaking with the AIU, which would have elicited a tampering charge.

“She never said to us the real name of the doctor,” Demadonna says. “I don’t know if she’s afraid of consequences. But as far as we understood, she was trying to cheat us…She gave us some stories, and we said, sorry, but you changed three times the name of the doctor.”

Demadonna says he had no choice but to conclude Kipyokei should be banned.

“Diana is completely guilty,” Demadonna says. “I am sorry. She has done something very bad.”

With Lempus, who trains with Claudio Berardelli in Kapsabet, Demadonna says it was different. Ahead of the Paris Half Marathon in September 2021, Demadonna says, Lempus was dealing with a case of tendonitis in her Achilles tendon. She won the race in 65:46; her post-race drug test revealed the presence of triamcinolone acetonide. It was only after this positive test, Demadonna says, that Lempus told him she had received an injection of triamcinolone acetonide to treat the injury.

At the time, triamcinolone acetonide was legal in-competition if administered by local injection (starting in 2022, that is no longer the case). But Lempus did not declare the injection to doping control in Paris — which Demadonna says she should have.

Even so, AFLD (the French anti-doping agency) initially cleared Lempus of wrongdoing, only for the AIU to investigate further, eventually leading to the tampering charge. Demadonna says he does not know what Lempus did to draw the tampering charge but says he cannot argue her innocence because she was not forthright with him about the initial injection.

“For me, [she] is guilty because she never informed me or the coach,” Demadonna says.

More to come

With four more open investigations into triamcinolone acetonide use by Kenyan athletes, this story does not appear to be over yet. Demadonna says one of the athletes currently being investigated is another one of his clients, and he is at a loss about what to do. He stresses to his clients to inform him about any substances they are prescribed by doctors. And within Kenya, ignorance is no longer an excuse. Following a raft of doping cases in the 2010s, Athletics Kenya and the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya have made efforts to hold seminars and raise awareness about the consequences of doping. Kenya even made doping a criminal offense in 2016, though few runners have actually been sanctioned by the government.

Yet the flow of doping cases from Kenya has not stemmed. This year alone, Kipyokei, Boston and Chicago Marathon champion Lawrence Cherono, and 2:05 marathoners Emmanuel Saina and Philemon Kacheran have all been suspended for doping offenses, among others.

The cancellation of races in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic hit many athletes hard, particularly the ones dependent on prize money to support themselves and their families. As long as major marathons continue to offer life-changing money for a victory, Demadonna says, there will be athletes willing to dope in order to achieve those riches. For them, it’s worth the risk.

“To eradicate doping from Kenya, it is not only education,” Demadonna says. “Because you cannot educate people that don’t want to be educated. They only have one goal, that is to change their life. If you are poor and you see the money there, you see a lot of money there.

“And the difference to be number 1 and to be number 10, it’s amazing. Boston Marathon, $150,000 for first, 10th maybe $5,000 (note: it was $5,500 in 2022). So you can understand that there is maybe a minute or two minutes between number one or number 10. But there is 20 times or 10 times more or 30 times more money for first. So it’s true that with one race you can change your life.

“It must be clear, I don’t justify [doping]. I just explain to you what may be driving these athletes to become so stupid.”

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MB: Has Kenya found a super drug? 2021 Boston champ is one of 10 Kenyans to test positive for triamcinolone acetonide since 2021

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