It’s not yet on par with the ‘dirtiest race in history’ – but the 2008 Olympic 1500m final in which Nick Willis crossed the line third is certainly tracking that way.
Having been upgraded from bronze to silver when initial gold medallist Rashid Ramzi was stripped of his title for testing positive for CERA – an advanced form of EPO – Willis is processing the news that the only other athlete who finished ahead of him is now also a convicted doper.
Willis has yet to comment on the fate that has befallen Asbel Kiprop, the Kenyan who was upgraded to gold when Ramzi was outed by Bahranian athletics officials for failing a test at the Beijing Games. The Kiwi runner posted a link to a news report about Kiprop’s ban on his twitter page – but has so far left it at that.
— Nick Willis (@nickwillis) April 20, 2019
It seems it is Willis’ intent that we interpret that post using the context of his previous utterances on doping. Across several interviews in recent years, the key thrust of Willis’ views is that doping in athletics overall is in decline, but is still prevalent among those who run at the very front of the pack.
“In 2004, when I first made the Olympics, [people would ask me] ‘How many of the medallists were doping?’ [and] I’d say, ‘How many of the finalists are doping?’ and I’d say it was much higher than 50% of the finalists,” he told a running publication in 2016.
“Whereas now, it’s only really the top three or four guys [where] there’s is a high percentage that are doing it.
“But, just like with the [Rashid] Ramzi situation in 2008, it becomes more evident [that they are doping now] because they are so much further ahead – the one or two or three that are doing it. Whereas in the late 90s, early 2000s, I think there was such a high percentage doing it that it wasn’t obvious as they all were ahead at the same time.”
Based on that, it’s hard to imagine Willis is overly surprised by Kiprop’s positive EPO test and subsequent four-year ban.
As noted by the IAAF’s integrity unit (AIU) in handing down its judgement, the fact that Kiprop has been outspoken in decrying doping for many years is neither here nor there.
“Denial, the record shows, is the currency of the guilty and the innocent alike,” the panel wrote in its finding.
Kiprop’s case also support’s Willis’ long-held view that many athletes he competes against come from countries that either lack the resources, or are too corrupt, to institute effective anti-doping programmes.
The fact that Kiprop was tipped off by Kenyan anti-doping officials prior to the out-of-competition test that brought him down and also paid those officials a bribe – $30 via bank transfer from his phone – cuts both ways.
The tip-off supports the view that corruption and collusion in Kenya has aided and abetted cheating by that country’s athletes, while the payment of the bribe would suggest doping officials had no motive – as Kiprop has argued they did – to frame him.
The AIU discounted the payment by Kiprop (reportedly to cover the tester’s food and petrol expenses) as a red herring.
Another good call.
In much of Africa, such payments are a routine part of life.
For example, when attending Rugby World Cup matches in South Africa in 1995, our group of Kiwi fans were regularly approached outside stadiums by kids asking if we wished to pay them to look after our vehicle. It was pretty clear what would happen if we didn’t ‘hire’ their services, so we always paid up.
Crossing borders on a hitchhiking trip up to Kenya often meant facing a choice between buying thirsty border guards enthusiastically priced coca colas, or waiting around for hours in the blazing sun while the gatekeepers pondered their navels.
Kiprop making a bank transfer from his phone while the tester waited in his house isn’t really incriminating, at least for him. But neither is his suggestion, that that was when his sample was likely tampered with, credible.
Kiprop also argued that the test result could have been caused by natural EPO created by training at altitude.
The ‘naturally created’ defence, as it happens, was rolled out by 1988 100m bronze medallist Dennis Mitchell when he returned a test with abnormally high testosterone levels a decade after what would become known as the dirtiest race in athletics history.
Mitchell was banned for two years when his explanation that he had drunk “five bottles of beer and had sex with his wife at least four times… it was her birthday, the lady deserved a treat” was rejected.
Mitchell finished fourth on the track in Seoul but was upgraded to bronze when Ben Johnson was disqualified for testing positive for nandrolone. On that occasion the gold medal went to Carl Lewis, who was later revealed to have failed three drug tests for stimulants prior to the Games – test results that were buried by US Athletics.
Linford Christie, who bagged silver after finishing third, failed two drug tests, testing positive for a stimulant in 1988 and an anabolic steroid in 1998.
The only sprinter in the top five in Seoul to retain a clean doping record throughout his career was Calvin Smith, an American who ran 9.99 seconds to finish fourth and claim bronze.
Smith, an honourable man who was known to run clean, maintained a dignified silence until 2016, when he co-authored a book about the effect competing against drug cheats had had on his life.
The book was entitled, simply: “It should have been gold.”
Willis, it now seems, is a member of that club.
Kiprop, meanwhile, has pledged to clear his name.
“There is no justice in the world,” he said. “Not every prisoner in jail is guilty. I will consult my lawyer to see if I will appeal at CAS [the Court of Arbitration for Sport], but no matter the outcome I will be back stronger.”