EMBU, Kenya — Two Kenyan athletes serving four-year bans for doping at the 2015 world championships say the chief executive of Athletics Kenya, the country’s governing body for track and field, asked them each for a $24,000 bribe to reduce their suspensions.
Joy Sakari and Francisca Koki Manunga told The Associated Press that CEO Isaac Mwangi asked for the payment in an Oct. 16 meeting, but that they could not raise the money. They were informed of their four-year bans in a Nov. 27 email, but never filed a criminal complaint because, they say, they had no proof to back up their bribery accusation and also feared repercussions.
Mwangi dismissed the allegation as "just a joke," denied ever meeting privately with the athletes and said Athletics Kenya has no power to shave time off athletes’ bans.
"We have heard stories, athletes coming and saying, ‘Oh, you know, I was asked for money,"’ Mwangi said. "But can you really substantiate that?"
Sakari, a 400-metre runner, and Manunga, a hurdler, told AP they would be willing to testify to the ethics commission of the IAAF, the global governing body of athletics.
The commission already is investigating allegations that AK officials sought to subvert anti-doping in Kenya, solicited bribes and offered athletes reduced bans. The probe has led to the suspensions of AK’s president, Isaiah Kiplagat, a vice-president, David Okeyo, and AK’s former treasurer, Joseph Kinyua.
Sharad Rao, a former director of prosecutions in Kenya who also has adjudicated cases for the Court of Arbitration for Sport, is leading the ethics investigation for the International Association of Athletics Federations. Sakari and Manunga’s decision to come forward could be a breakthrough, because Kenyan athletes have been unwilling to act as whistleblowers.
"There is obviously the reluctance on the part of the athletes to come forward," Rao said. "They don’t want to stand out."
As many as a half-dozen banned athletes have privately indicated to the IAAF commission that AK officials sought to extort them and that they feel their sanctions might have been less if they had paid bribes, Rao said.
AP’s interview with Sakari and Manunga is the first time Kenyan athletes have detailed such allegations publicly.
"That information would, of course, be very, very significant, very important for us," Rao said.
Rao said he has been talking to at least one other athlete who may have been approached for a bribe, and that his first priority was to get responses from Kiplagat, Okeyo and Kinyua — all three of whom have flatly denied to him that they took or solicited bribes.
Acting on AP’s report, the IAAF said Wednesday it has passed Sakari and Manunga’s allegations to the ethics commission.
Sakari and Manunga, both police officers in Kenya, said Mwangi asked them for 2.5 million Kenyan shillings — or $24,000 — each.
"I told him I’ve never seen that much money in my life," Manunga told AP. "Even if I sold everything, I wouldn’t be able to get together that amount of money."
The athletes tested positive in August for furosemide, a diuretic banned because it can mask the use of forbidden performance-enhancers, and were sent home from the worlds in Beijing. They told AP the drug was sold to them by a chemist in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, who said it would alleviate side effects of supplements they were taking. The chemist testified in defence of the athletes to AK, saying he gave them furosemide to combat water-retention caused by the supplement.
Compared to doping cases involving other athletes, their four-year bans appear harsh. World Anti-Doping Agency rules classify furosemide as a so-called "specified substance," distinguishing it from hardcore performance-enhancers like steroids or the blood-boosting hormone EPO.
For specified substances, IAAF rules allow for lesser bans of no more than two years, or even just a reprimand and no ban, if athletes can prove they weren’t at fault or negligent.
To impose a four-year ban, the rules require authorities to establish that athletes intentionally cheated. But AK appears to have discounted the chemist’s testimony. In the letter it sent to Manunga announcing her ban, AK said there was no "plausible explanation" for using furosemide and that the federation "can only infer" she took it intentionally as a masking agent.
Last year, Serbia’s athletics federation imposed a two-year ban on 800-meter runner Nemanja Kojic for the same substance. He can return to competition in 2017; Sakari and Manunga were banned until 2019.
They said they visited Mwangi’s first-floor office together, seeking news of their case. During that meeting, they said, he asked for the bribe, dangling the possibility of shaving time off their bans.
Both athletes say they are sure of the date of that meeting — Oct. 16 — because, they say, they went to the KCB bank together later that day to open accounts and deposit 600,000 Kenya shillings ($5,785) paid to each of them for being on Kenya’s team at the IAAF’s world relays meet in the Bahamas in May.
"He was waiting for us to give him money, so that this ‘thing’ disappears," Manunga said. "We left, kept quiet and later that’s when our names came out and we were told that we’ve been banned because we did not deliver that money."
"He asked us if we could give him something. That’s what he said," said Sakari. "He asked for money."
Mwangi denied that he met privately with the athletes.
"Why we avoid those kinds of things is because we know athletes are fond of making any kind of claim," he told AP.
"It is not possible to give anyone money to meddle with your case," he added. "I will contact the athletes officially and I will ask the athletes to come, the two of them, and like I said they are police officers, so we will have to involve the police force."
Soliciting a bribe is a crime in Kenya.
The athletes have told their story privately to the Professional Athletics Association of Kenya, an advocacy group of Kenyan runners. The association’s secretary, Julius Ndegwa, said Sakari and Manunga came to see him and a lawyer in January.
The athletes spoke to AP in an on-camera interview in Embu, a ramshackle town 130 kilometres (80 miles) northeast of Nairobi where they were housed in police accommodation.
Sakari also raced at the 2012 London Olympics and 2009 worlds. In Beijing, she competed under the name Zakary, but Sakari is her preferred spelling. She indicated that she is now done with athletics, because she will be 33 when her ban expires.
Manunga, 23, said she would have paid to return sooner to competition.
"For me, those four years are too many," she said. "If I had the money, I’d have paid. But I didn’t have it. So I just left."