NAIROBI (Reuters) - The Kenyan government on Wednesday called for top officials in its athletics federation to step down after athletes stormed Athletics Kenya (AK) headquarters in Nairobi in protest over corruption and feeble efforts to tackle doping.
The East African country boasts some of the world's finest middle and long-distance runners but in recent years has been shaken by a spate of failed drug tests undergone by athletes.
AK officials have denied embezzling funds relating to a sponsorship deal with U.S. sports giant Nike, and say Kenya is doing its best to root out drug cheats despite limited resources.
A group of athletes swooped on the AK headquarters on Monday morning, ordering staff to leave and barricading themselves inside until Tuesday evening. The stand-off ended after athletes met with government officials.
In a joint statement with athletes, Richard Ekai, the top civil servant in the sports ministry, called for "any AK officials mentioned ... or being investigated for corruption to step aside to allow for further full and conclusive investigation to be done".
Long-serving AK President Isaiah Kiplagat, Vice President David Okeyo and former AK treasurer Joseph Kinyua were questioned earlier this year by the police over the Nike sponsorship funds and their files were forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) for further action.
Okeyo, Kiplagat and Kinyua have denied any wrongdoing.
Kiplagat, who in May temporarily stepped down from his AK post to contest the vice presidency of the world athletics body IAAF, itself mired in its worst-ever doping crisis, on Wednesday rejected calls for him to step down.
"We are going to wait for recommendations from the (Athletics Kenya) executive. Non-elected people cannot decide our fate. It’s clear, only elected officials can ask one to vacate the office,” said Kiplagat.
The statement by sports ministry Permanent Secretary Ekai was co-signed by AK's acting president, Jack Tuwei, and Wilson Kipsang, a former world marathon record holder and president of the Professional Athletes Association of Kenya (PAAK).
It was PAAK members who stormed the AK headquarters on Monday, fearful Kenyan athletes could face collective punishment from the World Anti-Doping Agency for a rash of failed tests.
Kenya topped the medals table at the August world championships in China but PAAK athletes worry that alleged graft by AK chiefs could see the country follow Russia in being banned from international track and field.
The statement said PAAK athletes would meet sports ministry officials next week to list their grievances with AK, an organization they say has failed to listen to athletes' concerns and does take care of Kenya's champion runners.
"There will be no discrimination and or victimization of any athletes," the statement said. "Alleged issues of corruption and or misappropriation of funds by AK officials (will) be thoroughly investigated."
(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Mark Heinrich)