Brutal murder of champ Tirop lifts lid on suffering of athletes

Agnes Tirop

Former world javelin champion Julius Yego (left) and other athletes, coaches and members of the public during a procession from Eldoret Hospital Mortuary in Eldoret town, Uasin Gishu County escorting the body of the late Agnes Tirop to Kapnyamisa Primary School in Nandi County for a funeral service on October 22, 2021.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • AK forums told that some ‘coaches’ sexually harassed athletes, demanded for money earned from races
  • Athletics Kenya to release report ‘that will have far-reaching implications that will change how athletes are handled’

The murder of 2015 World Cross Country Championships gold medallist Agnes Tirop in Iten, Elgeyo Marakwet County, last October lifted the lid on the underworld of athletics.

An underworld where gender-based violence is rife with sexual discrimination and abuse by coaches, masseuse and other unscrupulous individuals going largely unreported. Tirop's lover, Ibrahim Rotich, has been charged with the athlete's murder.

There was public outcry during her burial at her parents’ home in Kapnyemisa village in Mosoriot, Nandi County, where it emerged that a lot of athletes have been going through abusive relationships.

This prompted Athletics Kenya to start national consultative forums across the country in order to dig deeper on the issues affecting the stars.

The forums also came against the backdrop of the death of athlete Hosea Macharinyang in West Pokot. The former cross country champion committed suicide.

Athletics is no doubt the most successful sport in Kenya, globally speaking, with numerous medals having been won at the Olympic Games, World Championships, Commonwealth Games, among other competitions.

During the AK tours in the 14 regions, never-heard-before information on forced and intimate relationships between female athletes and their handlers came up with upcoming athletes as the most affected ones.

The forums that were held in four clusters starting in Ngong, Kajiado County, on November 8 before ending in Kapsabet, Nandi County, on December 2.

They drew 2,921 participants that included 1,916 male and 736 female athletes.

The forums, attended by 269 coaches and other stakeholders, saw 2,254 questionnaires being filled with 332 suggestion forms also completed with the data well secured due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The information revealed by the athletes touches on their coaches, managers, physiotherapists, the federation and their families, among other issues.

Due to poverty, upcoming athletes find it hard to put food on the table with no income while women on the other hand find it hard to get basics like sanitary pads.

Athletes also complained about the challenges in accessing release letters from AK whenever they are heading abroad for competitions.

AK, in response, said that they are streamlining the same to ensure all athletes have fair and timely access to these letters.

“We are working on a document that will capture all the issues raised by athletes and it will be detailed because from what we gathered athletes have been suffering in silence and it’s time to act on various issues,” AK President Jackson Tuwei said last week.

During the national forums, other issues that came up were allegations that coaches, agents and physiotherapists were taking advantage of young girls where they end up molesting them sexually while they have nowhere to run.

For instance, athletes in some camps have rogue coaches who allegedly have sex with young girls and offer contraceptive pills to avoid pregnancies, which, in the long run, affects the athlete’s career performance.

Some, purporting to be coaches, beat and sexually harass athletes, including demanding money earned from races. Some athletes also told of stories where stronger runners were shunned away in favour of weaker ones who were willing to give in to the demands of the coaches.

The disciplined forces’ coaches also came under scrutiny with claims that call-ups to national and international duty were only possible through sexual favours. At another forum, it was revealed that relationships start while the athlete is young and finds an unscrupulous coach leading to early, unplanned marriages.

AK was asked to train more female coaches, while female athletes were also challenged to take up more leadership positions to protect the girl child.

World 5,000 metres champion Hellen Obiri said junior athletes should sign contracts properly adding that there are camps which have female athletes only, and there is need for the federation to employ female chaperones. She also said that it should be extended to Team Kenya where more qualified female coaches are needed.

‘I used to be beaten seriously’

In Kisii, emotions ran high when Dickson Nyakundi, who participated in the 5,000m, 10,000m and road races, narrated how he was mistreated in a camp by someone who was well known to him.

Nyakundi said that he went for manual jobs in Nairobi where he wanted to save money to join a training camp. He claims he was exploited with not much in return for him.

He told the forum of cases where a coach who headed the camp started mistreating him by caning him when he didn’t perform well during his training.

“I used to be beaten seriously and at one time I decided to leave the camp, but he locked me inside his house and hid my passport.

“I found my way out of the house and fled the camp and later my father went to get my passport, which he accepted to release when he heard that we planned to involve the police,” said Nyakundi who later joined Rongai Athletics Club for one year before heading to Run2gether Athletics Club.

His wife, Teresia Omosa, also claimed she was a victim of the bad management from the camp.

She alleges that she would be beaten and asked to surrender all the cash she had won in various races she had competed in.

Omosa gave an example of when she went to compete in Angola and came back with Sh60,000. Upon arrival, the coach asked her to surrender all the cash.

“The coach used to wait for me to earn something from the race and he would take all the amount and would wait for me even at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi and would make sure he takes all the cash I received for use in the camp.

“I couldn’t even send something for my parents,” claimed Omosa.

She revealed that her husband came back to save her from the rogue coach and she is now happy with her training. She urged those who are suffering to air their grievances.

The regions that officials visited included Ngong, Kajiado County, Machakos County, Chuka, Tharaka Nithi, Nyeri and Nyahururu under the first cluster.
In the second round of meetings, the officials met athletes in Bomet, Kisii, Kericho and Keringet (Nakuru).

The third round of meetings headed to Eldama Ravine in Baringo County, Kaptagat and Iten in Elgeyo Marakwet County. The fourth round of the tour saw athletes visit Kaptama in Mount Elgon (Bungoma County), Kapenguria in West Pokot County and the last one being Kapsabet in Nandi County.

The report, according to Tuwei, will be released in two months' time where relevant authorities will be brought in to act on the document.

In last week’s press conference, Tuwei revealed that professionals will be brought in to help the committee to investigate and authenticate some of the grim revelations made by athletes during the forums that took one month.

Tuwei disclosed that the report, which is set to be presented to the Cabinet Secretary for Sports Amina Mohamed, “will have far-reaching implications that will change how athletes are handled.”

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