On September 27, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced that 2017 World Long Distance Mountain Running Champion Petro Mamu used banned performance-enhancing drugs (PED) in competition.
According to a statement by the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA), Mamu, of Eritrea, had taken an asthma medication that is on the list of substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The medication was found in Mamu’s system during a post-race drug test at the August 7th world-championship event, which took place in Premana, Italy.
The statement also revealed that Mamu had tested positive for the same substance one week earlier at the short-distance World Mountain Running Championships, also in Premana. Mamu had finished fifth in that race.
“The results from the short-course championship hadn’t arrived [before the start of the long-distance championship],” says WMRA president Jonathan Wyatt, by way of explaining why Mamu was allowed to compete at the long-distance championships. “There is a notification process that goes from IAAF to the National Federation and then to the athlete. Unfortunately there was not enough time.”
The findings directly affect the podium results at the long-distance championships. Francesco Puppi, of Italy, has been bumped from second place into first; Pascal Egli, of Switzerland, is now the silver medalist; and U.S. runner Tayte Pollman has been moved into third place, for a belated bronze medal.
“I’m disappointed to see yet another example of how PED use makes it difficult for athletes to compete on a level playing field,” says Richard Bolt, who was the team manager for U.S. athletes at both the short- and long-distance championships. “Tayte looked so strong in Premana and was getting faster as the raced progressed. I’m happy to see his effort has been rewarded with the podium finish he deserved.”
Pollman will have the opportunity to attend a medal ceremony at the 2018 championships, to be held in Poland. (He did not respond to requests for comment.)
For Andy Wacker, 29, of Boulder, Colorado, who represented the U.S. at both short- and long-distance championships, the news was particularly shocking. He considers Francesco Puppi, the now champion, a friend.
“I had stayed with Puppi … in June, and saw first hand his hard work and dedication,” says Wacker. “He was up at sunrise, running 15-mile tempos in 95-degree heat before taking an hour-long train to Milan where he is working on a PhD in physics. He would take the train home, go for a second run and then make dinner for me.”
Despite the fact that the podium has been altered to account for Mamu’s PED use, Wacker says the results don’t feel satisfying. “Petro put us all in a position where we don’t know what would have happened, and can’t feel good about our accomplishments, which are now tainted by this incident,” he says. “This may be naive, but I still think that the world championships are supposed to be, like the Olympics, a shining example of peaceful diplomacy, friendship and competition. Cheating defeats that spirit.”
As punishment for his use of a banned performance-enhancing substance, Mamu has been stripped of his gold medal (and prize money) from the long-distance championships and his fifth-place finish at the short-course championships. He will also serve a nine-month ban from competition, reduced from two years after he cooperated with the IAAF investigation.
This means that he will still be able to compete at the world-championship events in 2018.
Athletes and WMRA officials alike are dissatisfied with the IAAF’s decision to reduce Mamu’s ban.
“I believe that bans should be two years at a minimum,” says Wyatt. “If WADA would like to offer cooperation clauses, then longer bans can be reduced, but the minimum two years should be respected. As it stands Petro will miss very few races in his normal mountain-running calendar.”
Others take an even harsher tact. “I believe there should be a lifetime ban for anyone who has cheated,” says Mario Mendoza, who represented the U.S. at the long-distance championships. “In rare cases where it’s unsure whether the athlete cheated on purpose or not, I still believe there should be a minimum of a four-year ban. A nine-month ban is just a joke. A female competitor would be out nine months to have a baby.”
The question of ingesting banned PEDs “on purpose” is a sticky one. WADA regulations include Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUE) for athletes who have medical conditions that necessitate taking a banned substance. “If a doctor had issued Petro with [a TUE], he could have taken that substance with no consequence,” Wyatt says. “You see a lot of abuse of that system, where whole teams of athletes are deemed to be asthmatics.”
As it stands, Mamu did not have a TUE for the use of asthma medication. (Mamu has yet to respond to a list of questions sent to him by email. Trail Runner will update the article if and when he does so).
“Athletes are responsible for everything they do and take. They have to inform themselves,” says Wyatt. “This was not Petro’s first year of racing, so we can all reasonably expect him to inform himself of any prohibited substances.”
Joe Gray, 33, of Colorado Springs, finished just 10 seconds ahead of Mamu at the short-course World Mountain Running Championships on July 30, leading U.S. men to a bronze medal. “Reduced sentences should only be given to athletes who are part of a doping group … and can provide vital information to end doping on a grand scale,” he says. “I’ve said for years that we need out-of-competition testing across the board for off-road racing. Too many athletes are unaccounted for.”
Mountain running lacks the kind of regular, centralized doping control of sports like cycling. Testing is only required at some races—like world championships. Other races have to request (and pay for) testing to be administered.
The WMRA and the International Association of Ultrarunning can each designate a short list of competitors to receive year-round, out-of-competition testing, based on race results—but the practice is not widespread across all elite-level mountain runners.
Wacker, who has represented the U.S. at eight international championship events, says he has never been tested—including at this year’s short- and long-distance championships, where he finished 30th and 38th respectively.
“I have never been drug tested at any race I have been a part of as a professional. Nor have I ever been tested out-of-season,” he says. “I was tested twice as a collegiate athlete. We need more testing, but it is difficult as the cost [of drug testing] is often incurred by the race itself. In a sport like trail running, where small race sizes mean small race profits, bigger organizations need to help out.”
Says Nancy Hobbs, who chairs the Mountain, Ultra, Trail council of USA Track and Field, and is a WMRA council member, “We should strive for education as well as a more comprehensive program to include pre-competition testing, out-of-competition testing and in-competition testing at more events worldwide to insure the playing field is equal for all athletes.”