Smaller marathons targets of drug cheats?

When two Kenyan distance runners were sanctioned for doping offenses by Athletics Kenya last week, initial news reports described one of the athletes, Jynocel Basweti, as "relatively unknown."

However, the 27-year-old Basweti is very familiar to organizers of mid-market marathons in the United States. He has won 17 marathons in the U.S. since 2006, sometimes stringing together multiple victories only weeks apart. His resume includes three wins at the Quad Cities Marathon; two apiece in Buffalo, Richmond and Atlanta; and others in Denver, Seattle, Jackson, Miss., and Louisville, Ky.

Basweti's times weren't world-class, and the prize money he collected was modest by professional standards, topping out in the $10,000 range per race over the years. But the frequency of and spacing between his wins were eyebrow-raising, and his recently-revealed doping violation highlights a tricky issue for directors of small-budget races with a recreational or charity focus that do little to no drug testing.

According to the IAAF, track and field's international governing body, Basweti tested positive for boldenone, an anabolic steroid intended for veterinary use, after finishing second at the Culiacan Marathon in Mexico on Jan. 22, 2012. His two-year suspension announced last week was back-dated to July 2012. During the interlude between the test and the beginning of the suspension, Basweti ran in at least four marathons in the United States and won three of them within a six-week stretch:

• Feb. 19: 2nd place, Austin (Texas) Marathon (2:23:52)

• March 18: 1st place, Shamrock SportFest, Virginia Beach, Va. (2:22:57)

• April 1: 1st place, Knoxville (Tenn.) Marathon (2:29:24)

• April 28: 1st place, Kentucky Derby Marathon, Louisville, Ky. (2:23:04)

"This is a first for us," said Knoxville Marathon race director Jason Altman. "We'll have a discussion and see if we have any recourse. If he cheated, he cheated not only the participants but the race organizers."

The race, sponsored by Covenant Health, is organized by the Knoxville Track Club. Basweti was awarded $1,500 for first place in Knoxville last year and $1,000 for second place in 2011, Altman said. Most proceeds from the race are donated to local charities such as a college scholarship program and a recreational center for the disabled, and Altman said he is disturbed at any possibility that money might have been diverted to an undeserving winner.

Basweti did not return an email requesting an interview. He has trained in Mexico recently, and in race results over the last seven years, he is listed variously as residing in North Carolina, New Mexico, Georgia, and most recently Hebron, Ky., where he appears on a multi-national roster of athletes at Larisa Mikhaylova's L.M. Elite Running Club. The Russian ex-runner, club president and athlete agent told ESPN.com she had worked with Basweti for parts of 2012 but not since.

In 2007, a then-20-year-old Basweti ran what remains his personal-best time of 2:14:02 to win the Austin Marathon, earning $10,000 plus a $2,500 bonus for setting a course record. That also marked the last year the Austin race offered prize money in the open division. Race director John Conley said he decided to change his business model partly because of concerns that cash prizes could increase the incentive to cheat.

The Austin Marathon organization implemented drug testing in 2002 through the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Conley recollects that at least five of the top 10 finishers were tested each year, including Basweti as the 2007 winner. USADA's website shows an undated test in the first quarter of 2007 for Basweti, the only time he has ever been tested by the agency.

Conley said it was (and is) obvious that some runners were moving from race to race on the smaller market circuit, running five or six marathons a year and recovering with seemingly miraculous speed in between. While planning for the 2008 race, Conley decided to eliminate both prize money and drug testing. "You can't do one without the other," he said.

In some years, especially Olympic years, he recruits a half-dozen or so elite athletes from clubs he considers reputable and pays expenses and small appearance fees to do media and community events before the race. Conley also keeps a "little penciled-in list" of athletes on the smaller marathon circuit whose results he deems sketchy, and said he discourages them from entering the race.

By last year, Basweti had made Conley's watch list and the director said he told him not to come. But Basweti paid his own entry fee to compete in the open division and showed up at the last minute anyway. "He was surprised, and disappointed, when he found out after the race that we didn't award prize money anymore," Conley said.

Quad Cities race director Joe Moreno, who founded that event 15 years ago, expressed dismay when he learned of three-time winner Basweti's suspension and said he would have to consider the possibility of instituting limited doping controls.

"Basweti won our event in 2006, 2008 and 2011," Moreno wrote in an emailed statement. "At this time, we do not have knowledge of any doping activities during this period. The QCM is a strong mid-sized event that has built our foundation on competitive racers, sportsmanship, and camaraderie. Our board of directors, race committee, and sponsors cherish these hallmarks that have built our foundation. Doping and cheating directly violates and infringes on the spirit of our event. We plan to review processes for our 2013 event in compliance with USATF rules and standard practices for drug testing and will release additional information in the future."

The World Marathon Majors, a consortium of six events, announced a new anti-doping policy in February that executives say will give them more leverage to recoup prize money and appearance fees for athletes who commit doping violations -- even if they are not at the race in question.

Elite athletes in the majors are under contract, giving organizers a hammer that smaller races do not have, and drug testing has been a fixture at those races for years. Athletes who choose to dope know the low-hanging fruit is in the smaller races, and some may opt to run more frequently -- and a few minutes slower -- for lower paydays.