Editor’s Note: This article is by Jeffrey Duncan, a recent graduate of Haverford College with a B.S. in Chemistry. He currently lives in D.C. where he works as a research technician. Jeff will be joining the Stride Nation team in the very near future, so you can look forward to more of his work on these pages.
Yesterday morning, Spanish authorities raided a hotel in Sabadell, just north of Barcelona, where the Somali coach Jama Aden and his elite track group were stationed for a stint of training prior to competing in the European circuit. Reports indicate that the authorities recovered 60 pre-loaded syringes of erthyropoietin, commonly referred to as EPO, in addition to other banned anabolic agents from Aden’s hotel room.
EPO is naturally produced by the body to stimulate the development of new red blood cells. An increased mass of red blood cells can improve a runner's ability to deliver oxygen to their muscles as well as their ability to clear lactic acid, a byproduct of intense exercise that is associated with muscle fatigue. This drug has been used by athletes as a performance enhancing drug since the late 1980s with incredible effectiveness. Despite the existence of tests for the presence of this drug, it quickly clears the system and through the use of repeated small doses, a technique called micro-dosing, athletes can easily evade testing positive for the banned substance.
Aden was taken into custody by authorities under charges of administering performance enhancing drugs to athletes, a crime punishable with a two year prison sentence in Spain. While drugs were found within the rooms of athletes, possession is reportedly not a criminal offense and they were therefore not arrested. In recent years, Aden has come under scrutiny by the track and field community due to the seemingly super-human nature of performances by several athletes in his charge. Notably, Taoufik Makhloufi, the London 1500m champion, sprinted away from the field in the olympic final with a performance that was considered "almost too good" by pundits like letsrun's Weldon Johnson. Last year in the Monaco Diamond League meet, Genzebe Dibaba ran a mind-blowing 3:50.07 for 1500m to obliterate the world record. The record previously belonged to Qu Yunxia. Yunxia has herself been the focus of a recent doping probe after letters were leaked by Chinese state media where Yunxia and nine of her teammates detail a state sponsored doping program that forced them to take a cocktail of performance enhancing drugs prior to the record setting streak that these athletes went on in 1993. Until now, no record set by a Chinese woman from that era has even been approached by an athlete.
After Dibaba's record-breaking run, Aden was seemingly unimpressed by the magnitude of the performance. In an interview with Athletics Weekly he said, "many people can question how she runs 3:50. I say that's not the point, she can run faster.", and indicated she might be capable of as quick as 3:47. To put that in perspective, 3:47 would put her so far ahead of the competition, the fastest woman in the world this year, Faith Kipyegon, would have barely hit the home straight away by the time Dibaba had crossed the finish line.
Perhaps more impressive than the race performances by athletes like Dibaba, Aden has posted several workouts to social media which have been proclaimed by many coaches and physiologists as impossible. Prior to the 2015 Beijing World Championship, Dibaba completed a series of 1500m repeats at close to four minutes per repeat with a scant five minutes of rest in between. The aforementioned Faith Kipyegon, who finished second behind Dibaba at the world championship, ran three 1500m races in 4:02, 4:06 and 4:08 with days of rest between each run. Trent Stellingwerff, research physiologist of the Canadian Sports Institute and coach of Hillary Stellingwerff, a 4:05 1500m runner in her own right, called the workout “insane” and said if true, Dibaba is capable of a 28 minute 10,000m. A performance which would be a series of back-to-back world record 5000m runs.
In addition to the otherworldly performances by many of Aden's athletes, 2015 saw two runners under Aden's tutelage test positive for the use of EPO - former world junior champion Hamza Driouch and French 10,000m runner Laila Traby. Fortunately for Aden, his connection to Laila was not well known in the track and field world. A brief streak of races in which she chopped over 3 minutes off of her 10,000m time culminating in a bronze medal at the European championships was abruptly ended with a positive test for EPO. Her rapid rise and subsequent demise rendered her a relative unknown on the circuit and given the previously poorly publicized relationship between herself and Aden, it seemed most likely that Traby was a rogue agent working alone.
In contrast to Traby, the young Moroccan Hamza Driouch was considered the next great Moroccan miler with big shoes to fill. The media had continually compared the slight, fluid miler to the 1500m world record holder, fellow Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj. In 2010, Driouch burst onto the scene as the 15 year old sprinted past Britain's Charlie Grice to finish just behind Mohammed Aman to win the silver medal at the world youth championship in Lille, France. The championship is open to athletes under 18 years old, many of whom are presumably far more physically mature than the promising adolescent. Sure enough, by the time Driouch was 17 years old, he not only broke the prestigious four minute-mile barrier, he utterly eviscerated it as he ran 3:50.09 in Oslo, less than a second off of the world junior record set by 2009 world indoor champion Ilham Tanui Ozbilen. Later that same summer, Driouch would go on to easily run away from the field at the world junior championship to win the 1500m. Driouch soon thereafter faded into obscurity as he changed coaches and his times slowed. However, in 2015, the recently implemented biological passport would turn up with an anomaly for Driouch which resulted in a ban by the World Anti-Doping Association.
The biological passport, introduced to the IAAF in 2009, tracks certain parameters of blood and urine testing from an athlete over time to track changes in these values. There is an expected range an athlete is expected to fall within over time due to natural physiological variations from training and lifestyle. If an athlete falls outside of that range, they can be cited for a doping violation. Driouch's passport from the 2012 era turned up having some extreme off scores that were physiologically almost impossible. The result spurred a number of questions in the track and field world. At just 17 years old, it seemed highly unlikely that Driouch was acquiring and administering the drug himself. Scrutiny was directed towards Aden, who denied accusations of involvement and claimed that these athletes acted alone. In January 2015, Driouch leveled claims against Aden saying that he had trusted his coach who had given him vitamin shots which turned out to be EPO. However, two weeks later, Driouch redacted these claims and mysteriously absolved Aden of any wrong-doing.
So to say that these findings came as little surprise to many within the track and field community might be a massive understatement. Reports now indicate that Aden and his athletes had been under careful investigation by the IAAF, Spanish authorities as well as the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA).
The question as to whether or not these athletes are guilty seems to be a foregone conclusion. It is highly unlikely that such a large stock of drugs were so carelessly carted about by a coach to only be given to one athlete and the previous reports by Driouch and Torrence corroborate that notion. Instead, the questions are much bigger - what does this mean for the track and field world? What effect will this bust have on the global scene? The unfortunate truth is that despite the fact that this may be one of the largest doping scandals to hit athletics, it seems more than likely that no major change will come from this bust. After all, recent allegations aimed at the IAAF have accused the governing track and field body of massive cover ups and revealed state-run systematic doping in several countries but have lead to few changes. Recent reports suggest that many of the 172 athletes who tested positive for meldonium may have their suspensions reversed due to the fact that it's biological half-life may result in positive results months after taking the drug.
It therefore seems hard to believe that a group of twenty or thirty doped-up athletes might be the catalyst that purges the sport of dopers, or changes the way in which drug testing and monitoring is performed. And while media reports indicate that doctors were on-hand to administer blood testing to 18 of the 20 athletes found at the hotel, it seems very possible that none of these athletes will test positive. To date, just one athlete training under Aden has tested positive for drugs despite dozens and dozens of in and out competition tests. Importantly, these reports beg the question as to why any athlete would remain untested. Why would WADA leave two athletes untested despite finding dozens of empty vials of illicit drugs?
In the unlikely event that many or all of these athletes do test positive, they will keep their recent world performances and the payouts they came with because in order to wipe these performances from the record book, the IAAF requires there to be evidence that they were doping at the time of the performance.
In addition, many questions have been raised about the relationship between Aden and other high level track and field groups. Olympic champ Mo Farah of the Nike Oregon Project has been connected with the group for some time. Farah has been well documented to have spent several training camps with Aden and his athletes in Ethiopia over the past few years. The Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion and four-time world champion at the distances has been caught up in a doping allegation of his own that was made by former members of the Nike Oregon Project against the group and their coach, Alberto Salazar. Further complicating the situation, Salazar and Aden have been known to be friends for some time. It seems at least unlikely that a massive doping system might be orchestrated unbeknownst to close friends and training partners of the group. In contrast to Farah and Salazar's relationship with Aden, the Peruvian Olympic distance runner David Torrence briefly trained with Aden's group but left after just a few months as suspicions arose about foul play when Aden repeatedly pressed him to take injections of vitamins to help him improve his performances.
At this time, the depth and outcome of this raid remain unknown but if precedent of previous doping scandals are any indication, then it seems best to remain skeptical of any change in the status quo.