On Tuesday, the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) and the Abbott World Marathon Majors announced a partnership for an evolved intelligence-driven testing program to catch drug cheats at the proper time before performing at the major stages of the six major marathons (Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo). The testing comes as a result of a financial commitment increase from the major marathons to fund out of competition testing and investigation resources in an effort to uphold clean sport in their respective competitions. No specific details on the financial investment were shared.
“What we need is an elite level testing program that has to be intelligence focused, which means it has to be individually tailored, testing the right athletes at the right time to catch them in the act,” AIU head Brett Clothier told a group of reporters.
“This is not only an evolution but we understand our role within the industry and the fact that we do set the standard for not only things in this realm but from an operational perspective,” says Abbott World Marathon Majors executive director Tim Hadzima. “We understand our voice is very loud within the industry and this is another example for us to set that pace, standard and ‘move forward plan’ when it comes to something innovative like this.”
Past efforts by the major marathons to crack down on doping included increased testing and funding for an anti-doping lab in East Africa. However, it is no secret that doping continues to be a problem in elite running, especially from that region. Just last year, high profile Kenyan runners like 2008 Olympic 1,500 meter champion Asbel Kiprop, 2016 Olympic steeplechase champion Ruth Jebet, 2016 Olympic marathon champion Jemima Sumgong and 2017 world championship 800 meter bronze medalist Kipyegon Bett have faced bans for testing positive for the blood-booster EPO. The AIU was started in 2017 and has handled doping cases for the International Association of Athletics Federation, which is track and field’s world governing body.
The major marathons and the AIU recognized that sophisticated drug cheats can no longer be caught with traditional blood and urine testing before races at in or out of competition drug test. After the partnership, the AIU’s staff will increase to about 20 people with seven staff members focused on gathering and analyzing intelligence and six in test planning. Other staff members of staff have range of backgrounds in law enforcement, international crime investigations and security services.
The AIU and major marathons want to go after the athletes who microdose by observing any abnormalities in biological passport changes, tracking performances and considering any risk factors associated with each individual athlete. A level of risk (low, medium and high) is assigned to each athlete. Clothier says nationality could potentially be taken into consideration in assessing an athlete if they are based in a high-risk environment or whether their governing body subjects them to anti-doping testing.
“Individual testing plans are created according to their individual profile, their competition schedule and their whereabouts with a test placed at just the right moment,” Clothier says. “There are no random tests in this program. For those very high-risk athletes, our intel team creates deep individual profiles looking for meaningful patterns, meaningful associations.”
At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Sumgong became the first Kenyan woman to win gold in the marathon for her country, but then tested positive for EPO during an out-of-competition test in Feb. ’17. Because she tested positive after the Olympics, she will not be stripped of the medal. The AIU gathered information to conduct the Feb. ’17 test while she was preparing to defend her title at the London Marathon. Sumgong told a tribunal that she was undergoing treatment for an ectopic pregnancy and because there was no evidence of a hospital visit, she was banned for four years. The AIU took its investigation into the excuse further and determined that she tampered with doping control and provided anti-doping officials with fake medical documents and lied about her whereabouts—thus, the doping ban from the IAAF was extended until April 2025.
Signs of cheating surrounded Sumgong and some competitors in Rio even talked openly about how adjustable their placing in the Olympic marathon could be years later. Sumgong was tested positive for the banned steroid prednisolone in 2012 and was suspended for two years before the IAAF reversed the ruling, because she declared on a doping control form that the injection was for an injury. She was also training partners with Rita Jeptoo, a three-time Boston Marathon and two-time Chicago Marathon champion who tested positive for EPO in 2014 and was banned through ’18. Jeptoo and Sumgong were also represented by the same agent, Federico Rosa, who was criminally charged with administering performance-enhancing drugs in Kenya, before the charges were dropped in Nov. 2016.
When doping charges and suspensions are eventually brought forward, some athletes and people within the sport are quick to call for banning groups and all the people complicit in doping. The AIU says they will continue to look into the entourage of those who test positive or are regarded as suspicious or high risk.
“What we see, not just in road racing but across all athletics, are networks behind every positive tests,” Clothier says. “It’s a big part of our job to root them out and get to the real core of the problem.”
Guilty by association is also a dangerous and murky line to tread. The agents and athletes involved with multiple drug cheats certainly benefited financially through sponsorship contracts, appearance fees, prize money and bonuses.
Tom Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, the group that heads the Boston Marathon, recognizes that there is always talk about groups who potentially cheat or aid in cheating. Grilk believes AIU and major marathon partnership yields data and concrete information that can back those suspicions and then action can be taken.
The Boston Marathon takes place in less than two weeks. No one can guarantee it will be a clean race or that spectators won’t see someone like Jeptoo outrunning the MBTA’s green line train in the late stages of the race, like she did in 2014. Afterwards, there were open conversations that the performance was simply too good to be true. Seven months later, a positive test came back to confirm the skepticism.
“For us, in the individual races that comprise the Abbott World Marathon Majors, our real focus is on two groups—people who run and people who watch,” Grilk says. “We want people to know that they’re in a fair competition with others. For people who watch, we want them to enjoy extraordinary performances and not wonder if they’re cheating. We’ve seen that in too many sports.”