IAAF-Präsident Sebastian Coe (l.) und Abdeslam Ahizoune, Präsident des marokkanischen Leichtathletik-Verbandes in Doha. © FRMA Foto: FRMA


Morocco - A paradise for sports cheats?

von Hajo Seppelt, Grit Hartmann, Edmund Willison, Jörg Winterfeldt

The International Association of Athletics Federations took Morocco off their doping watch list two years ago. But fresh doping revelations and a distinct lack of real change revealed by the ARD Doping Editorial Team means the decision may now be reversed.

Times have become hard for Morocco's track and field athletes. This was apparent again this week, when the best athletes from all over the world came together in Doha, Qatar, to hold their World Championships in the glowing furnace of the Arabian Peninsula. Morocco's medal-winning performance on the big stage was already taking place before the athletes - or the cameras - were running. Abdeslam Ahizoune, Morocco's top track and field man, president of the national federation, received a medal of honour for his services to sport at the opening ceremony of the 52nd Congress of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) from Sebastian Coe, the British Lord who heads World Athletics.

This reflects the tragedy of the athletic situation in the North African country. In sporting terms, Morocco's running, throwing and jumping elite currently have far fewer prospects for precious medals. However, the lack of yield is also good news for Morocco: Coe's IAAF took Morocco off its notorious doping watch list in 2017 and downgraded it from the category of almost half a dozen countries with the highest risk of doping.

"The decision was based on two factors," Brett Clothier, head of the IAAF Integrity Unit, tells the ARD Doping Editorial team, "One, it was the efforts to improve the situation including new laws that were created in Morocco criminalising doping and also if it is to improve the number of tests quite dramatically to what happened there before. But the other factor was the diminishing factor of success from Moroccan national athletes. Morocco was a real power in athletics winning many medals but their performances had really reduced."

Blown out with doping substances

The question arises, however, as to how thoroughly the ethics watchdogs of the association really viewed the situation in the country and whether, in view of scarce resources, they make it too easy for them to categorise success by factor. According to research by the ARD doping editorial team, the situation in Morocco is dramatic, and a serious fight against sports fraud seems almost impossible to detect.

On the contrary: It appears that convicted dopers may become youth coaches, trainers dope, possibly even with the tolerance of the association, doping dealers are apparently not withdrawn from circulation just as little as pharmacists whose trade in doping substances has been discovered, unannounced doping controls are rare, and the conditions for fraudsters seem so paradisiacal that even foreigners might be entering the country to dope. The ARD's most spectacular revelation even suggests that France's 2018 European champion, long-distance runner Mourad Amdouni, might have benefited from those conditions in Morocco.

With its doping culture, as the country's image shows, Morocco is one example of a location which harms the hunt for equal conditions, fair competitions and a globally comparable anti-doping fight.

Watchdogs are alarmed. "The information you have provided to us is, the allegation you set out is very, very serious. There is no question about that", Australian Clothier told ARD doping editors, adding: "a decision as to whether Morocco will be put back on the watch list will be made prior to the end of this year."

Hall of Fame, Hall of Shame

Morocco is a country with a long running tradition that has produced great stars in the history of medium and long distance competitions. Said Aouita dominated the 1980s at all distances between 800 and 5000 meters. He is the only athlete to have won Olympic medals on both courses. Nawal El Moutawakel became Olympic champion over 400 hurdles in 1984 - as the first African and first Muslim woman to win gold at the Games and thus was even promoted later to become a member of the International Olympic Committee. And last but not least: Hicham El Guerrouj, whose world record in Rome in 1998 has lasted over 1500 metres until today. Even more striking, however, is the fact that the country in North Africa also looks back on a long era of convicted sports fraudsters - almost like Kenya or Russia.

The Royal Moroccan Athletics Federation is based right next to the largest stadium in the capital, Rabat, where the Diamond League Meeting, currently the most important athletics event on the African continent, takes place every year. Right in the entrance area of the association's headquarters, champions are honoured, including those who have been blown out for fraud. One example: Amine Laalou - once one of the best in the world over the 800 and 1500 meters: now with multiple doping convictions. The man, who was banned from all sports activities for eight years, now works as a junior trainer, reports an informant. In an interview, Laalou confirms this, saying that this should not be made public because he would then lose his job.

Further information about the Moroccan laissez-faire results from the evaluation of the local processing of a scandal. The Moroccan Nader Belhanbel, World Cup finalist, once blown up for doping, subsequently revealed a branched drug network as a whistleblower. His sports law investigation file from France was later leaked on the Internet.

Frustration of the sports investigators

The examination of the consequences brings amazing revelations to light: The doping dealer, whose home was once searched, doping substances seized, is to be still attained under the same telephone number and describes open-heartedly, problems with the police he got none. The pharmacy in the highlands around Ifrane, a popular training area for runners from many countries, sells the endurance doping drug EPO without a prescription on demand.

Without much digression, sports investigators complain that after passing on information to Morocco they never get any feedback as to whether the authorities in the monarchy are prosecuting the cases at all: It is as if everything disappears into a black hole.

Runners © imago images / GEPA Pictures Foto: imago images / GEPA Pictures

Will Morocco be on the IAAF’s doping watch list again? That should be certain by the end of the year.

A critic of the system now lives in Doha, in the desert State of Qatar. Houcine Benzraigenat was Morocco's national junior coach for two decades. He left his homeland a long time ago, also because he was afraid, he says. He now works in Qatar as a coach and denounces grievances on Facebook. For example, he has published sound recordings that prove how a junior coach wants to encourage protégés to dope.

Nevertheless, the Moroccan association has not intervened, although this phenomenon is widespread in Morocco. The victims are the young athletes. "I know athletes who get doping, 18 years old. But they cannot go out and say that they are taking doping substances. Why? Because then the name of the president of the association is dragged into the mud. And he has a close relationship with the royal family," says Benzraigenat, "which is why he can easily make a problem of it. That's why the athletes fear him. Nobody dares to say anything. The President himself says that King Mohammed VI has personally selected him."

Departure controls for whole teams?

It is the President who was honoured by the powerful IAAF boss Coe just before the World Championships for his services to athletics, who allegedly has a particularly close connection to the king: Abdeslam Ahizoune, national Telekom boss and administrator of the Royal Solidarity Foundation, boss of athletics for 13 years. Not even a recent attempt of the national running hero El Guerrouj to seize power was able to drive him out of office.

Ahizoune would do anything, says Benzraigenat, to ensure that Moroccan athletes would always show up clean at competitions abroad - regardless of whether the athletes had doped before. "The Moroccan federation does it this way: it carries out doping tests before international competitions. And if someone is doped, they take him off the squad and say: "You take a break so that you don't get blown out of international control". Athletes would not need to fear suspension neither.

Does Morocco's Athletics Federation really carry out a kind of exit check for entire teams in the style of the GDR's state doping system? The Moroccan federation and its president received written questions about the accusations. They remained unanswered.

However, as a top athlete it seems possible to remain uncontrolled. It is precisely in the remote regions of the highlands that a controller is seldom found. And in any case, a National Anti-Doping Agency in Morocco still exists only on paper. The World Athletics Federation only lists three runners in its test programme. Ordinary statistics with control numbers for Morocco can only be obtained with great effort: The World Anti-Doping Agency has recorded an average of hardly more than 200 controls per year for all Moroccan track and field athletes over the past three years.

On the run

Occasionally, foreign inspectors also find their way into the country. Some are sent by the integrity unit of the IAAF, others by foreign national anti-doping agencies who suspect training tourism for doping reasons to Morocco. They fear that the liberal market for doping substances and similar local factors, in addition to climatic and economic advantages, would also prove attractive.

The attempt by French envoys to test their top marathon runner Clemence Calvin without prior notice during training in Marrakech was apparently spectacular in spring. When doping control officers had with some effort located the location - Calvin changed her whereabouts 13 times in 15 days at short notice - the silver medallist of the European Championships in Berlin 2018 took to her heels, allegedly because she had not identified doping control officers as such.

In any case, there is widespread suspicion that independent doping controls are difficult to conduct due to the high risk of corruption in the country. "We have testing companies that have local resources who do the testing. But we also have other companies. Some of whom would need to fly people in for the special missions," says Brett Clothier of the IAAF Integrity Unit, “so it’s an issue that we have  to in our testing programmes – manage in a country like Morocco to make sure that the tests are truly no notice tests."


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