Rita Jeptoo’s agent speaks on his athlete’s failed drug test and discusses the depth of Kenya’s doping problem.
Last Friday, news broke that Kenyan marathon ace Rita Jeptoo, winner of the last two Boston and Chicago marathons, tested positive for a banned substance in an out-of-competition test in late September, just weeks before winning for the second straight year in the Windy City.
In the days that followed, it was reported that the banned substance in question was Erythropoietin, or EPO, the same blood-boosting drug that cast a dark shadow over cycling in recent years. Following the announcement, Jeptoo’s Italian agent, Federico Rosa, and her coach, Claudio Berardelli, vehemently denied having anything to do with her failed test and said they were cooperating with anti-doping officials investigating the case. Berardelli works for Rosa’s company, Rosa and Associates, and directs a number of training camps in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Rosa’s father, Dr. Gabriele Rosa, is known as one of the greatest marathon coaches in history, having coached numerous Olympic medalists and big city marathon champions, mostly from Kenya.
Despite his insistence that he had no knowledge of or involvement with Jeptoo’s performance-enhancing drug use, Federico Rosa’s reputation has been surrounded by a cloud of controversy in recent years. In 2012, another of his athletes, Mathew Kisorio tested positive for steroids [Kisorio has stated that neither Rosa nor Berardelli has anything to do with his failed drug test], and Jemima Sumgong, Jeptoo’s training partner who was second at Sunday’s New York City Marathon, failed a drug test following the Boston Marathon in 2012 for prednisolone and was given a two-year ban by Athletics Kenya. That decision was later reversed, as the localized injection for bursitis was permissible under IAAF anti-doping rules.
On Tuesday, Jeptoo met with Athletics Kenya in Nairobi, but she did not speak with reporters. The Daily Nation reported that Jeptoo wants her “B” sample tested so that she can clear her name. But Rosa, in an exclusive sit-down interview with Competitor.com on Sunday night in New York City, sang a different tune, saying, “I didn’t think there was any mistake because that’s a very, very, very, delicate situation and I don’t trust much in mistakes on finding substance. When there’s a mistake, the ‘A’ sample is slightly different from the ‘B’ sample and it cannot be said it’s positive. I don’t remember there [ever] being a mistake, especially when they told me it was EPO.”
Following Sumgong’s second-place finish in New York on Sunday, Federico Rosa, who is a doctor by trade but no longer practices medicine, spoke about Jeptoo’s positive test, his history as an athletics manager, the depth of the doping problem in Kenya and what can be done to help reverse it.
I want to start with your relationship with Rita Jeptoo. How long have you represented her as her agent?
About three years … if I’m not wrong … when she came to us.
And when she came to you, was that when she was coming back from pregnancy?
Yes, pregnancy and then an injury. I actually don’t remember if she ran something before the previous year or was always coming back. I had to rebuild because I’m sure she ran, I think Frankfurt (in 2011) when she made the good, decent comeback to 2:26. And then she was second in Chicago (in 2012) and then the next year, so yeah, it’s three years.
And how old was she when you started representing her?
Three years ago, she was 29 or 30.
And I know Claudio Berardelli has been coaching her for 11 months now [according to reports], but who was coaching her prior to that?
Claudio was coaching her from two years now. Before she was doing kind of herself, sometimes with the husband, Noah Busienei, sometimes with some problems. And then before Chicago last year she had a problem and she asked us to come to Italy to finish the preparations for Chicago when she was second. Then she stayed there 11 months.
So when were you informed of the news [that she failed a test]?
Yes, I was informed by Athletics Kenya on Tuesday.
And what did [Athletics Kenya] say to you when they informed you?
They just told me to… actually … they just told me that they need to talk to Rita and they say I think you know the issue. I said yes because I got the email and just to tell it to Rita.
What was your initial reaction when you heard the news?
I was dying. I could not believe [it].
Did you feel it must have been some kind of mistake?
No. No. No. I didn’t think there was any mistake because that’s a very, very, very, delicate situation and I don’t trust much in mistakes on finding substance. When there’s a mistake, the “A” sample is slightly different from the “B” sample and it cannot be said it’s positive. I don’t remember there [ever] being a mistake, especially when they told me it was EPO.
And when did you first talk to Rita after finding out the news on Tuesday?
I talk[ed] to her the next morning.
And what was her reaction when you told her the news?
She started to say, “I don’t know. I had malaria. I went to see a doctor. He gave me an injection.” And that’s not what’s happened.
She thought she had malaria?
No, she told me that she had malaria and she went to meet a doctor.
Was this in September that she went to see a doctor?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But normally we have an Italian doctor in Nairobi. If there’s any problem of this kind with my athletes, we tell them to fly to meet this doctor, which is 100 percent safe. He’s knows us. He’s an old guy—20 years we’ve known him.
And he works in Nairobi?
So she went to see him?
No, she didn’t go to see him. When one of my athletes tells me, “I have stomach problems or this or that” they get a flight tomorrow, go to meet the doctor. We book you, go there, test it and then the doctor in the afternoon comes back and says, “There’s this problem. You need antibiotics or you need this as well.”
And what is that doctor’s name?
The Italian? I prefer not to say because I don’t want to ruin any relationship.
So the first time she told you she went to go see a doctor for malaria, she told you that when?
I never knew.
So you never knew of any sort of medical issue that she had?
Never. I was not talking that much to her, maybe Claudio, but no, there was no malaria. We never knew anything.
So she, on her own, without consulting you or Claudio, went to go see a different doctor? Where do you think she went?
I think in Eldoret, but again I don’t know if this is true or not. I am still looking to go meet Rita again and see what she’s going to say when I meet her face to face.
After you got over the initial shock of hearing this news, what is your feeling now?
Now I, of course, am still very disappointed. On one side it’s very bad, but again I’m 100 percent sure I will have the proof … I know we had nothing to do with it. And I think it can be a very difficult moment, but very good to move forward to stop all the bad talking there is in Kenya about athletes using doping and prove that there is a problem in Kenya and there is something that has to be done together with the world’s major agents to clean up the history of Kenyan athletes because the history of Kenyan athletes is different than what’s going on in this situation.
How long have you represented Kenyan athletes?
In your opinion, is there a doping problem in Kenya today?
Today, yes. Absolutely.
And how long do you think that doping problem has gone on?
Five, six, seven years maximum. That’s completely changed our mentality. When I used to work back in the late 90s, early 2000s, it was really difficult to convince an athlete to take even a tablet for fever or bring [them] to a hospital. It was a completely different mentality. Right now it’s completely changed because a situation like races in China where there is no doping, $40,000 for winning , athletes will go.
You mean there’s no doping control in China?
Yes, some races.
Why do you think doping has become so rampant in Kenya in the last five or six years?
I think mainly communication is more easy, Internet, information getting by website or whatever and probably some have made it successfully and make some money and talk to others and get bigger and bigger and find out who they can go to. And I think like everywhere there’s more people, more use and it’s getting bigger.
Who benefits when the Kenyan athletes dope, besides the athletes who are running fast times?
The agent. The coach, probably, I don’t know if they make any deals with the doctor to get some of the winnings or not. But I can say for sure the agent.
Do you think Kenyan athletes, whether they’ve been caught or not, do you think they’re aware of what’s happening or do you think they’re tricked by an agent, a doctor or a coach into taking something that they’re not aware they’re taking?
That is a very difficult question. I still don’t know if Rita knew what she took or knowing what she was taking or just because she’s been told this was good for her. Yet this is a very, very difficult call to answer but I think most of them, they know what they are going through those days. Again, I don’t know how it’s going to happen, how the two of them are together, but for sure they promise some benefit in their running. And they’re smart [enough] to know you perform better on the training.
What do you think needs to be done in Kenya specifically to reverse this problem?
Well, I’ll tell you what I will probably do on my own that’s to keep our reputation clean. All my athletes are close to us and stand with us and are very upset for the situation. I will try to make maybe a monthly blood test, very simple with three parameters so you see the valuation of the blood and on our side publish [the results] so anybody can see and this can help to control. And the main thing is to do a laboratory in Eldoret where you can do a blood test out of competition because that is going to really stop the athletes to do this anymore because they don’t want there to be an issue.
Do you think it’s been easy for Kenyan athletes in the past five or six years to get away with doping because it is such a remote country and it’s expensive and hard to test there because there is no laboratory?
No, but I think the problem has to do with the blood testing. You can get there with urine and that is a random situation occasionally and it’s not that easy and you can’t do all the control that needs to be done. I think the blood tests will be the key.
Do you think Athletics Kenya is aware of how bad the problem is in Kenya or do you think they don’t want to know how bad the problem is in Kenya?
That’s another very difficult question and the issue is to see when to use it or not because up to now they was trying to say they’re letting agents, so from what I know from today it seems they now realize that there is a problem in Kenya. Whether it has been agents or the local doctor. They seem to now say we have a problem.
Another one of your athletes, Jemima Sumgong, finished a very close second at the New York City Marathon (on Sunday). Does the news of Rita this past week take away from her accomplishment in any way?
I don’t know. I think you read that they say she [Sumgong] has been banned for two years and though the issue was not true. That was really bad. And of course she’s in the same group [as Rita] and people have tried to use this, probably yes, probably it takes away a bit from what she has done, what she has been training, what she has been fight for. But I think it’s another situation that needs to be cleared very, very properly. I have right here the documentation I had in the press conference I was ready to give to anybody who was doubting her being clean. But yes, probably, but I am very confident with everything going in order and to come back and not talk in the future of doping or dirty athletes but just of what they used to be successful athletes and that most of them are still.
What is your relationship with Claudio, Rita’s coach? How long have you known each other and how long has he worked for you?
Ten years [ago] he started to work with us and it’s super good relation[ship]. He’s very dedicated. He lives in Kenya almost permanently and really works hard.
And how many athletes does he have in his group and do you represent all his athletes?
Yes, he only works with us. There’s exclusivity in working for us. He’s employed by us.
So all of his athletes are represented by you as well?
And how many athletes are in that group?
I can’t really say because we have several camps and the camps may have, like in Kaptagat, the bigger one, we have 35 athletes, but then when you go for training there’s another 25. There’s the junior and others coming through so probably at least 60-70 something athletes.
A couple years ago, an athlete you represented at the time, Mathew Kisorio, got in trouble for doping. How did you handle that situation?
I simply fired him. I sued him. Thank God he declared to all the media that we had nothing to do with this, that he went to a doctor he had been recommended to go, he explained that he give him some injection and told him not to race next week or something like that so it was clear it was something not legal and I just walked out on him. I didn’t do anything to support him. I tried to push him to say the truth. He started with the same shit, “I went to a doctor, I had malaria, he gave me tablets.” I said, “No Mathew, there’s no tablet.” So I tried to push him to cooperate with the information but he didn’t give me any information so the day I knew I just stopped any relation[ship] with him. There’s not an issue. But, of course, they tried to use it. But there’s not any relation[ship] anymore. He keeps calling me to come back to camp but I say I don’t want him. I don’t want any relation[ship] with athletes who cheated.
Have you ever had any other athletes fail a drug test?
No… Well, I had the sprinter, Amantle Montsho from Botswana, and she has a stimulant. It was a warning. They’re deciding what they’re going to do, three months or a warning but she’s lives in Botswana, training. They haven’t come to any decision.
What do you do now as a manager of these athletes to make sure they stay out of trouble and that they’re not associating themselves with the wrong people?
It’s still difficult but the only way —not because I’m not going to trust them but it’s more to protect them—I am going to do this protocol which I’m going to start with the biggest doctor in Italy, where we will go to an easy blood test and you can follow-up exactly and when you see something wrong. To be sure for them and I will use this also for mainly for the media for the people that doubt and to show my athletes are all under the protocol. These are the blood results, come and check in when you want.
In your opinion as someone who has been around the sport for over 20 years, do you believe that most of the current world records are clean, in track and in the marathon?
What can I say? I can say I hope yes, I hope they’re clean. That’s all I can say. That’s my big hope.
I believe you represent only Kenyan athletes …
No, no, no, I represent Ethiopians, Italians, Spanish, Brazilians, all types…
OK, but do you think there’s as big of a doping problem in Ethiopia as there is in Kenya or is it a different environment?
It’s a bit different most people saying … I have not done that much in Ethiopia, but also not that much. I was not much in their system, so I didn’t see the development of this. There are rumors that say “yes,” but people say “no.” Honestly I am not that there much to be able to say something about that.
In the specific case of Rita, do you know at this point when the “B” sample will be looked at?
I know on Tuesday, they will meet Rita. They asked me when I want to test the “B” sample and I said, “No, I don’t want to do the ‘B’ sample, I don’t need it.” They will ask Rita what she wants to do. Normally I think it takes a couple weeks but I don’t know. Thank God, I have no experience with that. And then after that they can decide.
It seems imminent that she will ultimately be suspended from competition for who knows how long. What will that do for your relationship with her?
In this moment I really don’t want to have nothing to do with her. Twenty-five years of my life and 40 years of my father, respect being publicly destroyed in the world. I want to see her, I want to meet her, I want to try to push her to help because what she’s going to be facing if she cooperates is different what she’s going to face if she doesn’t cooperate. And from there, if she cooperates, if she does it to help everybody, I will try to help her as much as possible. Outside of this she’s a nice person. If not, I will stop any kind of relation[ship] with her.
So do you think even though she’s in trouble, someone like Rita can help to reverse a lot of the problems that are happening right now?
I think it can help a lot. I think it’s the key moment of our sport to help and to try and go through this problem.
Do you have anything else you would like to add?
Not really. I point out again that I cooperated with the IAAF doping department a couple of years [ago]. We share a lot of information and do some stuff together. I was doing it without people knowing but as the [doping] situation became so bad, [they said to] use it, tell to the media [and] don’t worry because it helps a lot. We know we have nothing to do with this issue. They told me to use it to tell everybody that you cooperate with us and if anybody doubt it that they can call and we’ll explain it to them.