By Antony Gitonga
NAIVASHA, Kenya (Reuters) - A top Kenyan athletics official said on Thursday he feared the sport's governing body was preparing to ban his country, with the summer Olympics looming, to send a message about doping and corruption.
Kenya, which topped the medals table at the 2015 world championships, has had more than 40 athletes banned for doping in the past three years, putting it in the crosshairs of the IAAF's drive to eliminate systematic cheating and corruption.
"My belief is they (the IAAF) are preparing us for a ban ... if they are able to ban Russia, what is so special about Kenya?" Athletics Kenya executive member Barnaba Korir told Reuters. "They want to send a message, a clear message, that if Kenya is banned, the world will understand how serious they are."
Sebastian Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, says he is determined to restore the sport's image after an independent report found Russia had engaged in widespread, state-sponsored doping, which Coe's predecessor Lamine Diack has been accused of covering up in return for bribes.
Coe was quoted on Thursday as saying the IAAF would not shrink from banning countries that were damaging the sport's reputation: "If it means pulling them out of world championships or Olympic Games, then we will have to do that ...
"I know the World Anti-Doping Agency has looked very closely at the Kenyan national anti-doping agency," Britain's Daily Telegraph quoted him as telling BT Sport. "We, of course, monitor that through the IAAF, so that work is ongoing."
Kiplimo Rugut, chief executive of Kenya's anti-doping agency, ADAK, which has only been operational for a few months, was more confident than Korir. "We shall have conformed to all the WADA conditions in two weeks' time and there is no need to panic," he told reporters in Naivasha.
He said the Kenyan government had already released some funding to ADAK for drug testing, one of three areas in which he said WADA had demanded action, and denied that ADAK had fallen out with WADA.
But Korir said Coe, under acute pressure over all the scandals, "wants to make himself credible (in the fight against doping), so he may use us ... to make himself big".
Korir also said he feared damage from the case of AK's chief executive, Isaac Mwangi, who has stepped aside pending an investigation into allegations that he sought bribes to reduce doping bans on two young Kenyan athletes who had failed drug tests. Mwangi denies the allegations.
Kip Keino, the double Olympic gold medallist who chairs Kenya's Olympic committee, urged his government to do more to stave off the threat of a ban.
"They may say 'Athletics, don’t go to Olympics'. If athletics doesn’t go, where are the medals going to come from? We need to act immediately. We were given enough time, a long time. If you don’t clean your house, who do we blame? Ourselves."
The chairman of a government-backed anti-doping task force told Reuters last week that a bill was in preparation to crack down on doping with longer jail sentences and heavy fines.
Coe said restoring trust in the sport was a long-term project.
"We can make the changes, but the journey is going to be ultimately when people, and particularly when clean athletes, feel ... they've got anti-doping systems that they can trust in," he was quoted as saying.
"Parents, who in large parts nudge their kids towards certain sports, they've got to feel that we're not a sport full of junkies."
(Writing by Nick Mulvenney and Neville Dalton; Editing by Kevin Liffey)