NEWPORT, Kentucky (AP) — Larisa Mikhaylova's business model is simple: In exchange for a cut of their prizes, she enters Kenyan runners into far-flung U.S. road races that are small enough to be winnable but still large enough to offer modest cash rewards to top finishers.
Those smaller races usually can't afford expensive drug-testing.
An investigation by U.S. anti-doping officials and track's world governing body into distance runners from Kenya has now zeroed in on the Russian agent, whose racers have had a remarkable success rate but also a string of positive drug tests, nearly all at races in Mexico. Mikhaylova insists she is blameless, but some U.S. races are refusing to work with her group of athletes.
When Kenyan runner Lilian Mariita finished second at the Great Buffalo Chase 5K on July 4, 2015, in Frankfort, Kentucky, she picked up $2,500. But her whole way of life — competing in small races across the U.S., and sending winnings home to her poor village in western Kenya — crumbled.
Normally, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency would have no reason to police the race. This time, acting on a tip, drug testers were waiting, and steroids were found in Mariita's urine sample. The 27-year-old was banned for eight years, the longest of any Kenyan runner, and is now back in her village of Nyaramba.
"I used to rely on this for money and I don't know what is left for me," Mariita said, sobbing in the modest home built with her U.S. winnings.
Track's world governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, says it is investigating Mikhaylova and the runners she manages.
"We are working with USADA on her, and that group in particular," said Kyle Barber, the IAAF out-of-competition testing and intelligence coordinator. "The ultimate goal of this investigation is to stop her working, to stop her being an active agent, to stop her being involved in the sport."
Three Kenyans who worked with Mikhaylova have been caught doping since 2012. Jynocel Basweti, the father of Mariita's 2-year-old daughter, tested positive at a Mexican marathon for a steroid. Nixon Kiplagat Cherutich was busted for a byproduct of the steroid nandrolone, also in Mexico. And Mariita failed two doping tests in eight months — the one in Frankfort and also one in Mexico.
Mariita, speaking exclusively to The Associated Press, detailed a regimen of unidentified pills she said Mikhaylova told her were vitamins. Her racing schedule was aggressive, aimed at maximizing prize money. She said Mikhaylova gave her three reddish capsules the day of the Frankfort race and regularly gave her tablets for other races, starting from when she joined her camp in 2011.
Mikhaylova, herself the 1998 European Cup champion at 800 meters, denied ever giving tablets to Mariita and said she repeatedly asked her if she doped and warned that she wouldn't work with her if she did.
Mikhaylova told the AP that she registers athletes only for U.S. races and that runners were on their own when they competed in Mexico.
The runners in Mikhaylova's stable help illustrate the reach of a doping crisis in Kenya's thriving but ill-regulated running program. The East African powerhouse of distance running won 11 athletics medals at the 2012 London Olympics but has also since suffered the ignominy of having 40 runners banned for doping violations.
The sluggish response of Kenyan authorities is generating pressure for remedial action from the IAAF and the World Anti-Doping Agency, and from Kenyan athletes concerned they might be turned away from overseas races, including the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August. WADA has given Kenya until next Tuesday to comply with anti-doping rules. Missing that deadline could put the onus on the IAAF to suspend Kenya from international competition, as it has for Russia.
The culture of doping has a particularly strong grip on second- and third-tier Kenyan runners, who mostly race abroad, aren't tested regularly and won't compete in Rio. As well as Mikhaylova's camp, the IAAF said it is also investigating other groups of runners in the U.S. and Mexico.
Mikhaylova runs her stable out of a two-story house in a working-class neighborhood in Newport, Kentucky. The house contains dozens of medals and ribbons, hung haphazardly, two and three deep, won by her runners in places such as Akron, Ohio; Fort Worth, Texas; Duluth, Minnesota.
Mikhaylova emphatically denied ever giving drugs to any athlete. She said she provides services for East Africans far from home, entering them in 5Ks, 10Ks, marathons and half-marathons she thinks they can win and looking after their daily needs in exchange for a 15 percent cut. Runners pay her $10 rent per night, deducted from their earnings, which are wired home.
The runners stay for a month or two and then go back to Kenya, or sometimes Mexico, to train.
It can be an aggressive schedule: In 2014, Mariita ran 24 races in 13 states, earning $24,000 — more than what 99 percent of Kenyans earn at home.
Mikhaylova also has represented Shitaye Gemechu, an Ethiopian who tested positive for EPO in 2009 and was banned for two years, and Aissa Dghoughi, a Moroccan who got a three-year ban in 2006 for fleeing an anti-doping control in Switzerland.
Without waiting for the outcome of the IAAF probe, race directors in the U.S. are now distancing themselves from her group.
When she emailed organizers in Indianapolis in May 2015 to enter two runners in their Monumental Mile, they responded with a copy of their new anti-doping policy, which specifies that athletes are ineligible for prize money if they work with agents who have had two or more athletes banned.
For Mikhaylova, the organizers highlighted that part in yellow.
Leicester reported from Nyaramba, Kenya. Jay Reeves in Loxley, Alabama, Mutwiri Mutuota in Nyaramba, AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft and news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York also contributed.