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Kenyan runners urge Athletics Kenya to start counselling program for athletes

Runners call for Athletics Kenya to provide services to help athletes who are dealing with depression

Last week, two Kenyan distance runners were suspended by the Athletics Integrity Unit for anti-doping violations. This added to the already long list of Kenyan athletes to receive anti-doping sanctions in 2020, which includes 2017 London Marathon champion Daniel Wanjiru and former marathon world record-holder Wilson Kipsang. According to a Daily Nation report, these latest suspensions have prompted athletes to call for Athletics Kenya to start a support program with counselling for athletes dealing with depression, whether it was caused by doping bans, loss of fame or other life stressors.

Daniel Wanjiru and Kenenisa Bekele at the 2017 London Marathon.

Life after doping

Asbel Kiprop is an Olympic and world champion in the 1,500m, and in 2019, he was banned from competition for four years following a failed test in 2017. Kiprop has been adamant that he is innocent, and in the fallout from his doping scandal, his life took a downward spiral.

RELATED: Kiprop denies doping accusation

“I became an alcoholic, my wife left and friends deserted me,” he said. “I never planned to end my athletics career this way.” Kiprop, who tested positive for EPO, said he plans on returning to professional racing after serving his ban.

Asbel Kiprop wins 1,500m gold at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea.

Jemima Sumgong, another Kenyan marathoner who was banned for doping, described a similar fall from grace after also testing positive for EPO.

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“It was tough for me when I was suspended,” she said. “There was no one to turn to.” Sumgong, who won gold in the Rio Olympic marathon, said she was close to falling into a depression of her own following her doping scandal. Speaking from experience, she said Athletics Kenya needs to provide counselling for athletes who are going through tough times, whether due to doping bans or for other reasons.

RELATED: Jemima Sumgong banned from all World Marathon Majors for life

“There are athletes who might end up being banned for committing errors unknowingly and it can affect them mentally,” she said. “Athletics Kenya needs to come up with a counselling department because these people are also human despite having done something wrong.”

Jemima Sumgong
Jemima Sumgong wins the 2016 Olympic marathon.

Life after fame

Wilfred Bungei is another Kenyan athlete who has dealt with depression, although not because of a doping scandal. In 2008, Bungei won Olympic gold in the 800m, and soon after retiring from professional racing in 2010, he became an alcoholic.

RELATED: Runners with depression: you’re in good company

“There is a lot of loneliness up there when [athletes] are winning and success has come to their lives,” Bungei told the Daily Nation. “They are, therefore, easily lured into alcoholism, promiscuity and other destructive lifestyles just to hide from the real monster that brought them down.”

Bungei emphasized the importance of athlete support, and he agreed with Sumgong, stating that Athletics Kenya has a duty to look after its athletes. Athletics Kenya has yet to comment on the possibility of starting a support or counselling program.