On the 4th of December 2022, Kwazulu-Natal Athletics (KZNA) took the unprecedented step of issuing a media statement dismissing rumours of positive doping results at the 2022 Comrades Marathon. Prior to the media release, I had personally been told to expect the imminent announcement that a South African female gold medallist would be disqualified for doping.
The name of the South African athlete concerned and impending announcement appeared to be ‘common knowledge’ in the running fraternity. The management of the athlete’s club were allegedly aware that their athlete (together with one other gold medallist) had failed a post-race drug test and were expecting the two athletes to be disqualified. The manager of another elite running club was allegedly told by a senior member of the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) that, “[Athlete name] failed her ‘A’ sample and we’re waiting to hear about the results of her ‘B’ sample.”
Despite the doping denouncement from KZNA (and a subsequent press release published by the South African Institute of Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS)), the rumours have continued to persist from sources as diverse as athletics administrators, elite athletes and even the ‘yummy mummies’ in Durban North school parking lots.
After receiving numerous ‘tip-offs’, I fired off my own set of questions to Fahmy Galant, General Manager of SAIDS. He had previously been very responsive when I sent through questions for the “Drug Running at Comrades” article I wrote in 2019 – and he even subsequently introduced himself during the 2020 Red Hill Marathon (where we had a friendly discussion over a number of kilometres). This time however I got stonewalled.
Apparently, my polite enquiries were sent upstairs. A week later I received a reply from Khalid Galant, who is the Chief Executive Officer of SAIDS. The two most interesting answers were (1) a categoric statement that there were no positive drug tests after Comrades 2022 and (2) that, “I am not able to answer all of your questions.”
The remaining responses were cagey at best. When writing the 2019 doping article, I was freely provided with the full list of all South African athletes on the Registered Testing Pool (RTP) list. For some reason, after the 2022 Comrades Marathon this information has become highly sensitive and SAIDS have flat out refused to provide me with the names on the list.
Sometimes what is not said is more interesting than what is said. Assuming that SAIDS did not outright lie in their statement that there were no positive post-race drug testing results after Comrades 2022 (and I have no reason to believe that they would lie but, as we’ll see shortly, it appears that they have been less than forthcoming with the whole truth), I wondered why they would be hesitant to simply provide a response to my questions.
Since my friendly line of questioning was spurned, I resorted to a series of requests in terms of the Public Access to Information Act (PAIA). Unfortunately, to date the PAIA requests have not resulted in straightforward responses, none of the original deadlines were met and various delay tactics have been employed. Although SAIDS’ legal representatives undertook to provide me with a response to the PAIA requests, which included the disclosure of all drug-testing results related to the South African athlete of interest (with that athlete’s express consent), SAIDS has yet to deliver on its promise. If there’s nothing to hide, why insist on keeping your cards this close to your chest?
A recent Daily Maverick article (Anti-doping laws could lead to SA suspension from international sports events from 16 April) reported that, “The SA Institute for Drug-Free Sport has officially been notified that the country no longer complies with global anti-doping policies [by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)].” Perhaps SAIDS are concerned that the disclosure of this information may further expose the extent to which its internal processes are inconsistent with those stipulated by WADA?
I thought I’d try one more flirtation with the Galants and, whilst patiently waiting for my piece of the PAIA, sent them another email with seven more questions. This time I got a response within minutes but only to one question. I had been told Fahmy and Khalid were brothers but, being a diligent fact checker, thought I should verify the blood ties. The curt reply from Khalid Galant was, “Fahmy and I are not brothers nor are we related.” My courteous response was, “Thanks for the prompt clarification Khalid. Will you also be able to provide responses to questions 4-7?”*
* Question 1 was answered and questions 2 and 3 worked on the incorrect assumption that Khalid and Fahmy Galant were related.
Several weeks later and it’s still crickets in my inbox. However, less than 24-hours after this email exchange, there was a press release from SAIDS headed, “STATEMENT ON CONSPIRACY THEORIES AND RUMOURS OF DOPING DURING 2022 COMRADES MARATHON”. I assume that this was in response to question 5 above.
Whilst my spurned flirtations with SAIDS were going on, I decided to seek independent counsel – and shared the PAIA requests and responses from SAIDS’ lawyers with an attorney who has previously both defended and prosecuted doping cases. He agreed that SAIDS were deploying a ‘Stalingrad’ approach which is rather appropriate since it’s to Russia where we now head.
Whilst many of the Comrades 2022 doping rumours are still an unproven case of, “He said, she said” (with ‘the SAIDS’ doing their best to obfuscate), there are some concrete facts.
The first is that there was substantial political interference to allow Russian athletes in general, and ladies winner Alexandra Morozova specially, to participate at Comrades 2022. I spoke to Comrades Race Director, Rowyn James, who confirmed that, “There was substantial political interference to allow Alexandra Morozova to run.”
Race administrators advised Morozova that in light of the ongoing suspension of Russian Athletes by World Athletics (the Russian Athletics Federation has been suspended from World Athletics due to doping violations since 2015) and ASA’s requirement that all elite foreign athletes produce a clearance letter from their athletics federation prior to competing in South Africa, they required a letter from World Athletics permitting Morozova to run the race. Alexandra, who did not have such a letter, launched eleventh hour legal proceedings* against ASA and the Comrades Marathon Association.
* The court proceedings were eventually placed on hold with the agreement that Morozova was allowed to run the race and the Court would determine the validity of her result after the fact. The matter was ultimately settled out of Court and Alexandra’s win was allowed to stand. During our interview, James bemoaned the lack of support received from ASA during the legal proceedings.
The extent of the pre-race shenanigans and constant calls from various high-level local government ministers and officials including “the national Minister of Sport” meant that the James was not even able to attend the Comrades expo in the build-up to the event. We let their navy dock in our ports despite international embargoes and happily invite their war criminals to our shores, so why not show the same cordial South African hospitality to Russia’s athletes?
On drug testing protocols at Comrades, James clarified that, “Other than ensuring that facilities in which athletes are tested are available and as per SAIDS specifications, Comrades does not have anything directly to do with drug testing itself.” James elaborated that he waits for the all-clear from SAIDS received via ASA and KZNA before confirming results and paying out prize money.
The good news is that James’ information ‘holds up in Court’ and the minimal documentation that I have received from my PAIA requests to SAIDS follows the doping control process outlined above. However, the contents are curious to say the least.
As previously mentioned, the one unequivocal response that I received from SAIDS to my original questions was that there were no positive drug test results after Comrades 2022 and therefore no B-samples were tested. However, an official communication from SAIDS to Terrence Magogodel, Acting CEO of Athletics South Africa (ASA), sent on 7 October (40 days after the race was held) indicates, “The sample analysis of the two athletes* below require additional analysis”. What this additional analysis is or why it was needed are unclear and SAIDS have not replied to my query on this matter. Having spoken to those familiar with drug testing protocols, they are also stumped as to why this would be the case, especially if no B-samples were tested.
* The two athletes’ names have been redacted but are known to the author.
To quickly recap, our two pieces of irrefutable truth are (a) that there was political interference to allow Alexandra Morozova to run and (b) two athletes required “additional testing” before they were given the ‘all clear’. Incidentally, the eventual ‘all clear’ email was issued on 3 November which is a further 27 days after the “two athletes need additional testing” email and 67 days after race date.
It is also interesting to note that the ‘all clear’ email (available below) does not say that the athletes’ samples were negative or that the additional testing did not reveal the presence of banned substances. Instead it states that the results, “were declared negative, hence No Prohibited Substance(s) or Prohibited Method(s), or their Metabolite(s) or Marker(s) on the test menu as per the 2022 World Anti-Doping Code International Standard – Prohibited List were detected”.
I referred this documentation and insight to a well positioned athletics insider who told me, “This statement is ambiguous. Either the results were negative, in that the testing did not reveal the presence of any substance listed on the ‘test menu’ (given that SAIDS is unable to test for all and every banned substance, but will check for only a few prevalent or well-known banned substances), or the results were inconclusive in which case they had to be ‘declared’ negative.”
Let’s ask the question, hypothetically of course, “What would happen if a Russian athlete tested positive for a banned substance after winning the Comrades Marathon?”. I believe this is a fair question to ask since the abuse of performance enhancing drugs amongst Russian athletes is so widespread that the result of any Russian athlete without a verified blood passport is always going to be questioned (which is exactly why World Athletics banned the participation of Russian athletes in the first place).
There are strong links between several key ASA and KZNA athletics figures to the ruling ANC party and, in the event that a Russian winner had an adverse drug test result, one can expect that there would be massive political pressure to quash to result. Issuing ‘get out of jail free’ cards are a specialty of our government and there is no doubt they’d place the interest of comrades before Comrades.
SAIDS are essentially an organisation of political appointees since their funding and budget comes from the Ministry of Sport and Recreation. I am certainly not suggesting that SAIDS would bow to political pressure but, based on the political interference before Comrades, it would be highly unlikely that SAIDS would be left to their own devices if a Russian winner had a suspicious drug test result.
The odds are certainly stacked against SAIDS and having their testing facility located in Bloemfontein, constantly in the news and courtrooms as the capital of potentially the most captured province in the country, does not help their quest to avoid the taint of nefarious political interference.
Galant and Galant may well be the last bastion of defence against the malignant rot that is festering in our sporting codes. Unfortunately, it’s a case of Galant by name but not gallant by nature. Quick, coherent and transparent responses to reasonable questions would go a long way to diffuse the billowing cloud of doping smoke that continues to accumulate after Comrades 2022. Press releases denying rumours and decrying conspiracy theories are a popular political pastime in the Republic but they do nothing to convince an ever-sceptical public that there is no fire lurking beneath the smoke.
In researching this article, I have also done extensive investigations into the South African female gold medallist whose name has been bandied about as an alleged drug cheat after appearing on the ‘these two athletes need additional analysis’ communication. Whilst there is substantial circumstantial evidence, I have found no document or first-hand knowledge in support of these rumours. As previously mentioned, one of the outstanding PAIA requests is to get access to this specific athlete’s test results which, if clean, would swiftly clear the air. SAIDS’ continued delay in furnishing this information (which having obtained the athlete’s consent should be a straightforward process) only adds to the subterfuge and fuels the conspiracy furnace. I have contacted the implicated athlete directly who declined to speak to me.
I am also aware that the running public’s concerns were reported by an interested party to the Athlete Integrity Unit (AIU) within the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA). Unfortunately, both bodies have refused to become involved in the matter given that the Comrades marathon (as an ultra-distance event) falls outside their scope of jurisdiction. The Deputy Head of Investigations at the AIU, Kyle Barber, has however indicated that WADA will continue to monitor the situation moving forward.Follow Running Mann: