The good, the bad and the ugly in history of Kenya's women sports

Kenya’s gold medal winners at the 11th IAAF World Athletics Championships in Osaka. From left: Janeth Jepkosgei (800m), Alfred Kirwa Yego (800m) and Catherine Ndereba (marathon).

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Pay disparities and poor representation in decision-making bodies are among the challenges sportswomen face.
  • Former athletes predict a bright future and continuous achievements if women athletes are given proper support.

Catherine Ndereba leads an enviable life. She arrived at our meeting at Nairobi West Prisons mess chauffeured by her driver. Over the years, the retired marathoner has risen through the ranks in the Prisons Service, which she joined in 1995, a job she was offered, thanks to her running talent.

She currently serves as an assistant commissioner in charge of 12 sports disciplines, the latest addition being Kabaddi. “My interest in athletics started around 1979 and continued until 1980. I was 12 when I first represented my primary school at district competitions.”

Retired marathoner Catherine Ndereba during an interview at a restaurant in Nairobi West on May 19, 2023.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi I Nation Media Group

By this time, the first group of women athletes – Lydia Stephens, Elizabeth Chesire, and Tecla Chemabwai – had participated in the 1968 Summer Olympics. And in 1974, Sabina Chebichi was etched in history books after becoming the first woman to win a Commonwealth medal, running barefoot and in a petticoat. 

When Ms Ndereba, took up the sport seriously after her Form Four, she was uncertain about her future, but it has “allowed me to dine with kings”.

In 1997, she became pregnant. Unlike Ms Chebichi's career, which was cut short for the same reason, Ms Ndereba bounced back despite it being “one of the hardest things I have ever done”. 

A year earlier in 1996, another athlete, Pauline Konga, had become the first woman to win an Olympic medal after coming in second. Women were starting to establish their prowess in various athletics disciplines. 

Ms Ndereba gained fame in the American Marathon, winning four Boston titles and two in Chicago, with a world record time in 2001. And when her career was still at its peak in 2008, she won a Silver Medal at the Beijing Olympics. Pamela Jelimo would become the first woman to win Olympic Gold. 

After two decades in the sport, she hung up her boots following an ankle injury, which bothers to this day. “In 2015, I decided not to pursue surgery to extend my career because looking back, I had achieved my dreams,” she says.

Rise in GBV

In recent times, gender-based violence (GBV) has surfaced as an issue of concern, with the murders of Damaris Mutua and Agnes Tirop rocking the sports fraternity. An investigation by Nation, Heroes abroad, abused at home: The sad story of Kenyan female athletes, established that a number of athletes are battling against sexual and physical abuse.

Athletics Kenya (AK) has conducted seminars on GBV, extortion and sex pests, promising to take bold steps to address these issues. “As AK, we will not bury our heads in the sand and insist that the dirty linen aired so far is nonexistent. For instance, it is a reality that many athletes are victims of GBV at the hands of their spouses or even coaches and managers,” World Athletics Vice President and AK President Jackson Tuwei told Nation.Africa in May. 

Athletics Kenya (AK) president Jackson Tuwei.

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

Since 2022, he has encouraged survivors to speak up against GBV as a strategy to eradicate it, urging them to report to the police or the federation. National Olympic Committee of Kenya (Nock) secretary general Francis Mutuku said they are focusing on education and awareness creation through its Athlete365 programme, which includes promoting safety rights.

The committeeoffers a diploma programme to empower federations to recognise and address harassment and other forms of GBV. It acknowledges cultural practices that silence GBV at home, making it harder to eradicate the issue.

Unlike runners, weightlifters have had little to smile about. For Mercy Obiero, her life’s outcome has not matched her expectations. When we meet at her home in Eastlands, on the outskirts of Nairobi, she appears downtrodden. Her eyes tell a story of great disappointment. 

“Whenever I tell people, especially those who are not keen on sports, of the accolades and the history I made in weightlifting, most do not believe me,” says the first Kenyan to reach the weightlifting Olympics in 2012.

“The federation failed to engage my expertise after my retirement in 2018, leaving me feeling pushed aside and forgotten.”

Alongside two other women, Ms Obiero began her career at 19 in 1999, following in her elder brother's footsteps with the support of her parents.

Former Kenyan weightlifting Olympian Mercy Obiero, 44, now a fitness coach at Good Luck Fitness GYM in Umoja 2, Nairobi, on May 19, 2023.

Photo credit: Wilfred Nyangaresi I Nation Media Group

In 2002, she became the only Kenyan woman competitor at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. She overcame shaky beginnings and competed over the years. In 2010 at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, she finished fifth in the ‘up to 69kg’ weight class.

In 2012, she received a wild card to the Olympics, despite not qualifying because of her consistent participation in competitions. She transitioned from weightlifting to powerlifting, becoming Kenya's strongest woman after dethroning Phona Akinyi. She now offers personal training and fitness coaching for clients.

Football coaches

At Kayole Calvary Grounds on the border of Komarock and Kayole slums, Mary Adhiambo issues directions to her players. She is a former Kenya Women's Premier League coach, along with assistant Margaret Wangare, after their team Kayole Starlets was relegated to Division One earlier this year. The two were the only women coaches in the Premier League.

She attributed the club's relegation to financial constraints that led to the mass departure of many talented players. “As you can see (pointing at a child), most players are mothers, who, at the end of the day, need to provide for their children. As it stands, the sport is just not as lucrative.”

Prior to her leadership role at Kayole Starlets earlier this year, she had been a player herself, joining her first team in 1993 when the Kenya Women’s Football Association (KWFA) was established, although there were no organised structures in women’s football.

Kayole Starlet Coach Mary Adhiambo during an interview at Kayole Calvary ground on May 10, 2023.

Photo credit: Esther Nyandoro I Nation Media Group

In 1994, she was part of the national team, initially known as Nyayo Stars, later Nyayo Starlets, and now Harambee Starlets. She retired from International Football in 2007 and in 2016, she was the assistant head coach when Kenya made its maiden showing at the Africa Women Cup of Nations (Awcon) in Cameroon.

Before KWFA in 1993, Rose Wandera had founded a football club in 1970 for the East African Tanning Extract Company in Eldoret, enlisting female colleagues before retiring in 1974 to become referees.

In 1998, Pamela Adhiambo became a pioneer Fifa-accredited referee, after serving as a local referee since 1991. In 2010, Tabitha Wambui joined the list of Fifa-accredited referees. Today, the number of international referees is five. Mary Njoroge, who officiated the 2023 Fifa Women's World Cup for the second time, had previously served in France's 2019 edition.

Another Mary also stands out. Mary Ochieng is the head coach of women’s rugby club Impala. Outside rugby, she serves as the high horsepower and upstream influencing manager at Cummins Car and General.


In 2006, Kenya women's rugby re-emerged after three decades of inactivity, with the Kenya Rugby Union organising the Women's Elgon Cup alongside the men's competition. Ms Ochieng was among women players who took up the sport then, in her case driven by sheer curiosity. 

Historian Paul Okong’o recounts how in 1965, the Daily Nation reported on preparations for a women's rugby match between Impala and Parklands in Impala, with an all-white line-up.

In 1980, Kenyan women began to be included in the list of players, among them Valentine Mangusa, Josephine Kibe and Joan Anami.

After a somewhat successful career, Ms Ochieng retired and took up coaching in 2014. In 2021, an elite women’s league was introduced featuring six teams: Mwamba, Topfry Nakuru, Ruck It, Yamanashi Impala Saracens, Homeboyz and Northern Suburbs.

Kenya Lionesses, the national 7s team, demonstrated promise in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic games, and currently ranks 23rd in Women's World Rugby.

Charles Nyende, a renowned sports writer and sub-editor, highlights the significant achievements made in women sports, including Harambee Starlets reaching the Awcon in 2016.

“During that time, there was no established premier league, but these women managed to make it out of the blue. The women's volleyball team, known as Queens of Africa, consistently excels despite facing challenges in funding and training facilities. The 2022 Commonwealth Games saw women outperform men, a trend that was also observed at the Budapest World Athletics Championships earlier this year,” Mr Nyende says.

Additionally, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics saw a significant increase in women's representation, surpassing men's by 56 per cent for the first time in Olympic history.

Mr Mutuku highlights the increase of women in top leadership in local and regional bodies as among the development of women’s sports.

“Wanjiru Karani who is Team Kenya's chief executive officer for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games was also recently appointed as the second women vice president of the Confederation of African Tennis. In the next 10 years, we should expect to see more Kenyans in such positions.”


Ms Ndereba is currently concerned about the increasing cases of doping, which were less prevalent during her time. They affect the image of the country on the global stage. To counter this, she recommends continuous training and awareness for all athletes.

For both Marys, the lingering challenge remains inadequate investment in women's sports. Football’s Mary recounts a time when she had to turn to the media to amplify the financial woes of players that led them to miss matches. Rugby’s Mary revealed that veteran players often have to sacrifice their finances to support young players, as many would otherwise pursue other careers.

Mr Nyende cites patriarchal society's long-standing value of men's sports over women's, leading to funding and sponsorship challenges due to low returns on investment.

Kenya Rugby Union Development coordinator Ronald Okoth believes the Sports ministry's inclusion of rugby in grades 5 to 6 and 8 to 9 will attract more girls, despite high abandonment rates after secondary school.

“We need talent development centres like South Africa for girls to join immediately after Form Four, promoting interest and physical fitness for campus or local clubs.”

Ms Obiero emphasises the significant advancements in weightlifting, including increased competitions, gyms, and training equipment, which enhance the success chances for newcomers.

The four legends predict a bright future and continuous achievements for women athletes, given proper support.

Mr Mutuku acknowledges that despite Nock's efforts to increase women's participation through scholarships for women referees and coaches, and grants for various sports, and ensure two thirds gender balance compliance in team management through capacity building, more can be done.

Mr Nyende suggests that the government address pay disparities in sports, provide women's kits, and encourage clubs like Kabras Sugar rugby, which lacks a women’s side, to have equal representation.

“If we want to qualify for the Fifa World Cup, women are our best bet. We have a lot of talent and potential that we must all support, starting from the government to the spectators,” he concludes.