Runners take part in a training session.

Runners take part in a training session.

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Heroes abroad, abused at home: The sad story of Kenyan female athletes

What you need to know:

  • Female athletes suffer sexual and physical abuse from coaches, lovers.
  • Athletics Kenya official says retired athletes have now come together to provide emotional support to aspiring and current athletes in the country.

Caroline Cherono used to be a proud athlete. She has won many medals and trophies in her career, which she would otherwise have proudly displayed for all to see.

But now she keeps them hidden. She has endured a lot of pain, she says, and looking at the medals would only remind her of her scars.

“I don’t see them as my medals anymore, but as a permanent mark of my wasted years and sweat. I’ve lost all my money, I’ve lost my peace and I’m now clinically depressed,” she says, caressing the medals in her lap.

“Every time I see these medals I feel so low, I feel so disappointed because it reminds me of where I was. It hurts because I know I’ll never get any more,” she continues, fighting back tears.

Cherono is a mother of three and lives in Kericho County in a one-bedroom, wooden-walled house. It is here that she takes us through her years of athletics stardom and a love that ended it all.

It began with financial abuse, she says. As the emotional abuse began to take root, her mental well-being began to unravel.

“I met my partner in Italy because I specialised in Italian races and after a few interactions he became my boyfriend. I am a single mother, so it surprised me that someone could find me lovable. I believed he loved me and I fell madly in love with him and trusted him completely,” she says.

“Two years into our relationship, he talked me into buying a property together. He would look for the property, find the seller and then come to me with the deeds. I found it strange that he would only include me as a witness on the documents, yet it was my money that was used to buy the property. When I questioned this, he accused me of not being committed to the relationship,” she explains.

Between 2015 and 2018, Cherono increased her investments with her partner, who had strategically taken on the role of stepfather to her children.

As a result, she let her guard down, and in all transactions, her partner would be documented as the buyer, not her. She soon realised that he had began to sell the property without her consent. It was then that she began to sink into depression.

“I decided to just keep to myself and not socialise. I took my children to my mother’s for my sanity. All the people I called friends have since abandoned me,” she says, adding that she has given up hope of ever regaining control of her assets.

So, you might ask, why would she not race again to reclaim her career? For her, racing is as much a mental activity as it is physical, and if an athlete is mentally unstable or depressed, then no amount of physical training will bring out the athletic giant in her.

“When I started withdrawing from the community and my family, it affected my training so much that I couldn’t train properly and consistently. I can’t even concentrate on my training, most of the time I’m too depressed to even get out of bed. Being subjected to financial, mental and emotional abuse by my estranged partner is a constant ghost in my life. I hope that by sharing my story I will get help. I hear people talking about therapy. I am willing to try it,” she says.

But Cherono is not the only one whose talent has brought her pain.

Talent is supposed to be a blessing, often seen as a direct ticket out of poverty, especially in a developing country like Kenya where majority live below the poverty line, but it has brought pain and trauma to many. Behind the broad smiles on their faces as they cross the finish line, some athletes are quietly battling mental health issues.

With athletics being a lucrative career, it has attracted its fair share of predators who have lined up along the value chain to exploit female athletes, either by siphoning off their hard-earned money or sexually violating them.

Some of our sources admitted to being taken advantage of by people they trusted the most.

At a safe house in Nandi County, we meet an aspiring junior athlete. She is just 17 years old and a Form Three student at a nearby school. We will call her Chebet to protect her identity.

At her age, she has already represented the country twice, and done so with distinction. She is the national record holder in her event in the under-20 category. Under normal circumstances, this should make any teenager feel confident and proud, but Chebet is largely reserved.

Even when we sat down for an interview, it took the intervention of her guardian to make her feel comfortable enough to talk to us.

She tells us that she was forced to flee her first training camp in Kisii in 2021 after her coach sexually and physically abused her for over two years.

“When I managed to secure a ticket for Team Kenya at the 2021 U-20 World Cup, we were put up in a camp at Kasarani Stadium and I vowed never to return to my camp in Kisii. I had been through enough and I could not take it anymore,” she says, fighting back tears.

Chebet says that her coach had spotted her at the Nyanza Regional Primary School Games. She was in class six. He then convinced her parents to let him take her on with the promise that he would give her a full scholarship while she trained to become a professional athlete.

Chebet comes from a humble background and is the first-born in a family of 13 children. So, predictably, her parents welcomed the opportunity, hoping that she would return and change their fortunes. What they did not know was that they were handing their daughter over to a predator.

“The problem started when he started giving us massages, there were about five girls in the camp. So on the first day, I was the last to go in for the session, and when I opened the curtain to go in, I saw him naked. I was petrified, I had never seen an adult naked before. I wanted to run away, But he told me not to worry, he pulled me into the room and onto the massage bed.

He wanted to undress me completely. I refused and threatened to scream. He then proceeded to massage me with my underwear on. When I left, I was so scared that I did not even ask the other girls if they had been through what I had been through,” says Chebet.

What followed were endless episodes of physical and sexual assault as the unscrupulous coach, constantly reminding Chebet that she had nowhere else to go.

“There was this one day when he sent the other girls on some errands in town and insisted that I stay at home and do the housework. Then he came back and tried to force me to kiss him. I refused.

He asked me: ‘Who do you think buys the food you eat? Who buys your trainers and running shoes? Who pays your school fees? Is it your parents?’ I was scared, I had no choice,” Chebet says. “Sometimes he would send me to look after the cattle and then he would follow me and defile me inside the maize plantations, and when I tried to resist, he would beat me up.”

She says the coach made sure she had little to do with her family.

“He was the only one with a phone, so whenever I wanted to talk to my mum, he would call her, put her on speakerphone and then stand next to me ... I had no way of telling my parents what I was going through,” she says.

Elizabeth Keitany, a member of Athletics Kenya board, who was at the camp, was the one who noticed that something was bothering Chebet.

“The coaches were complaining that she looked lost in training and lacked concentration. I called her aside one evening and she opened up to me and as a mother I was very pained by what this young girl was going through,” says Ms Keitany.

“I noticed that he had bought the girl a phone and was calling her constantly, warning her not to interact with people, and he had also listed his personal bank account as the one where Chebet’s allowances should be transferred,’ she adds.

The fact that her oppressor found ways to torment her even when she was miles away, coupled with the fact that her parents were unlikely to benefit from her earnings, took its toll on her and she lost the will to compete.

“From the time I discovered my talent in Class Three, my mother always encouraged me to work hard. She told me that I was the family’s hope, and I kept that in mind, but seeing them not benefit from my small wins slowly crushed my spirit,” says Chebet.

After Athletics Kenya intervened, she was sent to a counsellor and moved to a safe house where she is studying and has resumed full training. Last year, she represented Kenya at the World U20 Championships, which took place in Cali, Colombia.

Back in Kericho County, 38-year-old Caroline Cherono is still lost in a world of darkness and sees no end to her suffering. She has yet to resume her education and get her career back on track.

“Sometimes I try to train. For example, today, I did all the kilometres I had planned, but most of the time I just stop after a few kilometres and go home and ask myself why I bother when I have nothing to show for my best years. I am just not sure what to do,” Cherono says in a defeated tone.

“I don’t even watch races anymore, they bring back memories that end up depressing me. I ask myself a lot of questions, like how I ended up in my current situation and if I will ever get back to the level of the elite athlete I used to be,” she adds.

Although she was too emotional to give us more details, she says she discovered her talent late in life, when she was already married with three children. This was in 2010. She started training seriously in 2011 and by 2013 she had her first crib and a race abroad.

However, this came at a high price as her then husband gave her two options: either stop running or end the marriage. She says that her attempts to convince her husband and his family that her talent was a blessing bore no fruit.

In the end, her maternal desire to give her children a better life prevailed and she decided to get out of the marriage with her children in the hope that she would be able to give them the best life.

She moved from her home county of Bomet to Kericho town, hoping to improve her education. What she didn’t know was that she was jumping out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire.

In 2015, with her career on the up, she decided to give love another chance. This time she was courted by a fellow athlete. While in her mind she thought she had finally found someone who understood her craft, she later realised—too late—that she had fallen into the hands of a predator whose mission was to exploit her romantic feelings for financial gain.

The thought that she had been betrayed by someone she loved shut her up. Her performance in the races dropped to the point that she no longer earned any money. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, she was one of the first athletes to be sacked by her manager because she was no longer productive. Her mental health deteriorated.

“During the Corona period, I had no income at all because there were very few races in Europe and only the top athletes of the time could be invited. With no local races, I couldn’t convince any manager that I was still worth anything,” recalls Cherono.

Her attempts to get her property or money back were futile as she did not have the financial muscle to put up a meaningful fight against her now ex-lover, who she says bought more property and married another athlete.

“It pains me that he is now living comfortably with his family while I am ruined. My eldest daughter graduated from high school two years ago, but I can’t send her to college because I can’t afford the fees. I have two other children, one in high school and another in primary school,” she explains dejectedly.

She adds that her ex-husband, with whom she had the three children, wanted nothing to do with them.

“I called him and asked him to pay our daughter’s school fees, but he blatantly refused. He told me to continue paying for her as I had been doing throughout her schooling. I feel alone in this world and I have no hope. My children are now living with my mother. I can’t let them see me crying every day,” she adds.

Milcah Chemos, a former world champion in the women’s 3000m race, said that retired athletes have now come together to provide emotional support to aspiring and current athletes.

“As a former athlete, I understand the importance of peace of mind needed to compete. It breaks my heart to see what our young girls are going through. And it’s not just the girls, the male athletes are going through a lot, too, and it affects their performance. That is why we are consciously trying to find solutions,” says Chemos, who is currently the athletes’ representative at Athletics Kenya.

Additional reporting by Steve Keter and Bernard Rotich