NAIROBI: Kenya’s athletics reputation is once again taking a pummelling after the suspension this year of an unusually large number of long distance runners for suspected doping. A top Athletics Kenya official even warned that the nation was at risk of an international ban, with 25 athletes hit with sanctions and 19 active cases pending in 2022 alone despite renewed efforts to stamp out the scourge. Top Kenyan sportsmen have spoken out against the use of performance-enhancing drugs, with marathon star Eliud Kipchoge branding it a national “embarrassment”. The problem is not new — the athletics powerhouse has been in the top category of the World Anti-Doping Association’s (WADA) compliance watch list since February 2016. “Right now we’re in the intensive care unit,” said Athletics Kenya official Barnabas Korir, warning the country was moving precariously close to joining Russia as a sporting pariah. “At this rate Kenya may not survive this year. The writing is on the wall: Kenya is facing a ban and its athletes will not be able to compete internationally,” Korir said. Most of those suspended or banned for violating Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) anti-doping rules this year are involved in road and marathon running, where the huge prize money up for grabs has helped fuel the corrupt practice. Among the top names are 2021 Boston marathon champion Diana Kipyokei and marathon and mountain racer Mark Kangogo. Two popular drugs of choice are Norandrosterone and triamcinolone acetonide — the latter is used for weight loss, muscle building and endurance and has long been part of doping in cycling. The AIU said last month that 10 Kenyan athletes had tested positive in 2021-22 for triamcinolone acetonide, which was still allowed in some forms last year before being banned in January. Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK) head Sarah Shibutse attributed the surge in cases in part to the long Covid-enforced lull in competitions that left runners idle. Shibutse noted that many Kenyan athletes come from poor backgrounds, and rely on their sport to earn livelihoods for themselves and their extended families. Last month, Athletics Kenya unveiled a raft of measures including tightening registration rules at training camps for agents, support staff and clinical officers — those who administer medication. It has also organised educational workshops, targeting the under-20s in particular.