The UK anti-doping agency has sent investigators to Kenya to probe allegations that four British athletes used the banned blood-booster EPO in a well-known high-altitude training region, claims that could increase the scope of the problem in the East African nation and show foreign runners are also doping there.
The allegations, made using secretly filmed video footage in a joint sting operation by German broadcaster ARD and British newspaper The Sunday Times, and published late Saturday and early Sunday, were ''of grave concern and of significant interest,'' UKAD chief executive Nicole Sapstead said.
''We have opened an investigation and are taking the necessary steps to corroborate the evidence and investigate it further,'' she said in a statement . ''I can confirm that this evidence is being treated with the utmost importance and urgency, and two members of UKAD staff are currently in Kenya pursuing a number of lines of enquiry.''
The World Anti-Doping Agency said it would also review the evidence ''and take the necessary action.'' WADA would support the British investigation if needed, it said.
The four British athletes accused of doping with EPO ''in and around'' the British track and field team's high-altitude training camp in Iten, western Kenya, were not named, although The Sunday Times said it knew the identity of at least one of them, and said that athlete was already under suspicion for doping.
The two media outlets said three Kenyan men - two of them doctors at a hospital in Eldoret, another high-altitude running town near Iten - told them that they had either provided or administered EPO to a total of four British athletes. The three Kenyan men implicated by the reports were later arrested by Kenyan anti-narcotics officers and two of them had appeared in court on doping-related charges, according to the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya.
Kenya has been under severe scrutiny over the last four years because of a surge in doping cases involving its runners. Kenya's high-altitude training camps are popular with top distance runners from across the world, raising concerns that foreign athletes could also take advantage of the area's poor doping controls.
In an exclusive report in March, the AP found the region was already bending drug-testing rules.
The latest in a series of doping scandals to hit Kenya hard since the last Olympics in 2012 could persuade international sporting bodies to consider sterner punishment for the country. Kenya's drug-testing program has been suspended but the country is still allowed to send athletes to international track and field competitions, including next month's Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
''On the broader topic of Kenya, this article is one in a series of reports questioning Kenya's ability to effectively address doping and suggesting that there exists a culture of doping in the country,'' WADA's director general Olivier Niggli said. ''Once WADA has had the opportunity to review the evidence from UKAD's investigation, we will be better positioned to determine what action is required to address the allegations.''
Apparently highlighting the poor controls in Kenya, ARD and The Sunday Times said they quickly found an EPO supplier in Iten. Using a hidden video camera, they secretly recorded the supplier saying he could easily provide EPO for around 60 Euros ($66) a dose.
The media outlets reported they also found empty EPO packaging matching those the supplier offered them, and used syringes, in a garbage can at Iten's nearby High-Altitude Training Center. At the time, a number of European athletes - British and Turkish - were in attendance.
''We strongly suspect doping in this Olympic year,'' the ARD reporter said.
EPO is a hormone that boosts the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells and can therefore increase an athlete's endurance. It was the banned substance at the center of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal in cycling.
One of the Kenyan men who allegedly provided EPO to British athletes, identified as Joseph Mwangi, said in the sting that he had supplied the substance to around 50 athletes in all, some of them Kenyan and some foreigners training in Kenya.
The claims appear to reflect the overriding problem in Kenya, where men claiming to be doctors or pharmacists have for years been supplying banned substances for cash. World 1,500-meter champion Asbel Kiprop of Kenya, who has not been implicated in any doping, said last week that in one case Kenyan authorities had taken no action after a marathon runner banned for doping identified the doctor who supplied him with steroids.
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