World champion runner Norah Jeruto’s doping suspension lifted over claims of ulcers and COVID-19

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World champion steeplechase runner Norah Jeruto of Kazakhstan has been cleared of doping after arguing that ulcers and a bout of COVID-19 could explain unusual blood test results.

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The Kenya-born Jeruto won the 3,000-meter steeplechase title for Kazakhstan at last year’s world championships in Eugene, Ore., but couldn’t defend it at this year’s competition after she was charged with doping in April.

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A disciplinary tribunal dismissed the charge and lifted a provisional suspension, leaving Jeruto free to compete at next year’s Paris Olympics. The Athletics Integrity Unit, which brought the charge, said Friday it “will review the decision before deciding whether to appeal” to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

No banned substance was found in Jeruto’s system. Instead, the case turned on whether blood samples from 2020 and 2021 were unusual enough to count as evidence of doping.

The argument from the AIU’s experts was that a set of samples indicated Jeruto had blood extracted as part of a banned “transfusion strategy.”

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Some athletes have previously sought performance gains by having their own blood extracted and processed before being transfused back into their system. The AIU’s case argued that other samples from late 2020 were consistent with Jeruto receiving the banned substance EPO.

Jeruto said she suffers from painful ulcers in her digestive system which flare up when she is stressed and have repeatedly left her hospitalized. An expert testifying on Jeruto’s behalf said internal bleeding from those ulcers could explain why some of her samples indicated she had lost blood and that there was no evidence she received any transfusions.

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The samples from late 2020 could be explained by the effects of Jeruto contracting COVID-19, rather than using EPO, her defense said. The tribunal said that raised “sufficient doubt on this part of the case that it would be unfair to convict (Jeruto)”.

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Jeruto’s case highlights just how complex doping cases can be. It comes as track and field tries to clamp down on drug use by distance runners after a spate of high-profile cases. The Athlete Biological Passport, which relies on blood data over time to flag up suspicious samples, has been a key tool.

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“It may be that even in such (ABP) cases few are as complex, or involve a dispute as to the scientific evidence between reputable experts in the way this case did,” the tribunal concluded.

Jeruto won the African championship gold medal in the steeplechase in 2016 and the Diamond League title in 2021, both while representing Kenya.

She switched allegiance to Kazakhstan last year, having missed the Tokyo Olympics while she waited for the switch to take effect, and won the Central Asian nation’s first ever world track and field gold medal in a championship-record time last year.

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