Two Kenyan athletes serving four-year bans for doping at the 2015 world championships say the chief executive of Athletics Kenya, the country's governing body for track and field, asked them each for a $24,000 US bribe to reduce their suspensions.

Joy Sakari and Francisca Koki Manunga told The Associated Press that CEO Isaac Mwangi asked for the payment in an Oct. 16 meeting, but that they could not raise the money. They were then were informed of their four-year bans in a Nov. 27 email, but never filed a criminal complaint because, they say, they had no proof to back up their bribery accusation and also feared repercussions.

Mwangi dismissed the allegation as "just a joke," denied ever meeting privately with the athletes and said Athletics Kenya has no power to shave time off athletes' bans.

"We have heard stories, athletes coming and saying, 'Oh, you know, I was asked for money,"' Mwangi said. "But can you really substantiate that?"

Sakari, a 400-meter runner, and Manunga, a hurdler, told AP they would be willing to testify to the ethics commission of the IAAF, the global governing body of athletics.

IAAF already investigating Athletics Kenya 

The commission already is investigating allegations that AK officials sought to subvert anti-doping in Kenya, solicited bribes and offered athletes reduced bans. The probe has led to the suspensions of AK's president, Isaiah Kiplagat, a vice president, David Okeyo, and AK's former treasurer, Joseph Kinyua.

Sharad Rao, a former director of prosecutions in Kenya who also has adjudicated cases for the Court of Arbitration for Sport, is leading the ethics investigation for the International Association of Athletics Federations. Sakari and Manunga's decision to come forward could be a breakthrough, because Kenyan athletes have been unwilling to act as whistleblowers.

"There is obviously the reluctance on the part of the athletes to come forward," Rao said. "They don't want to stand out."

As many as a half-dozen banned athletes have privately indicated to the IAAF commission that AK officials sought to extort them and that they feel their sanctions might have been less if they had paid bribes, Rao said.

AP's interview with Sakari and Manunga is the first time Kenyan athletes have detailed such allegations publicly.

"That information would, of course, be very, very significant, very important for us," Rao said.

Not the 1st allegations 

Rao said he has been talking to at least one other athlete who may have been approached for a bribe, and that his first priority was to get responses from Kiplagat, Okeyo and Kinyua — all three of whom have flatly denied to him that they took or solicited bribes.

Sakari and Manunga, both police officers in Kenya, said Mwangi asked them for 2.5 million Kenyan shillings — or $24,000 — each.

"I told him I've never seen that much money in my life," Manunga told AP. "Even if I sold everything, I wouldn't be able to get together that amount of money."

The athletes tested positive in August for furosemide, a diuretic banned because it can mask the use of forbidden performance-enhancers, and were sent home from the worlds in Beijing. They told AP the drug was sold to them by a chemist in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, who said it would alleviate side effects of supplements they were taking. The chemist testified in defense of the athletes to AK, saying he gave them furosemide to combat water-retention caused by the supplement.

Compared to doping cases involving other athletes, their four-year bans appear harsh. World Anti-Doping Agency rules classify furosemide as a so-called "specified substance," distinguishing it from hardcore performance-enhancers like steroids or the blood-boosting hormone EPO.

For specified substances, IAAF rules allow for lesser bans of no more than two years, or even just a reprimand and no ban, if athletes can prove they weren't at fault or negligent.

To impose a four-year ban, the rules require authorities to establish that athletes intentionally cheated. But AK appears to have discounted the chemist's testimony. In the letter it sent to Manunga announcing her ban, AK said there was no "plausible explanation" for using furosemide and that the federation "can only infer" she took it intentionally as a masking agent.