Iten, once a famous citadel of stars, is now crawling with extortionists, athlete killers

 Agnes Tirop

The late Agnes Tirop.

Photo credit: File | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Iten has over the years carved its place on the global map as the place where many athletes prefer to go for training before heading to local and international races.
  • Recent killings have somewhat dented that image.
  • On September 12 last year, a month before she was found dead, Tirop had shattered the world record in the women-only 10km road race at the Road to Records event in Herzogenaurach, Germany.

Iten, a popular high-altitude training destination for elite middle-and long-distance runners in Elegeyo-Marakwet County, has lately been in the limelight for tragic reasons.

It is in this town perched on an escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley where, on October 13 last year, the body of record-breaking distance runner Agnes Tirop was discovered lying on the bed at her home.

The 25-year-old two-time world 10,000 bronze medallist had been stabbed to death. Tirop won bronze in the women’s 10,000m at the 2017 and 2019 world championships and finished fourth in the 5,000m at the Tokyo Olympics in Sapporo.

Her husband, Ibrahim Rotich, who was arrested after some days on the run, is on trial for the killing.

A fast-rising athlete, Tirop had a month to her death smashed the women-only 10km world record in Germany. And last month, the body of another female athlete, Kenyan-Bahraini Damaris Muthee, 28, was found in a house in the same town.

Her Ethiopian boyfriend, who is wanted for the killing, is reportedly on the run.

The two killings have lifted the lid on the traumatic lives that some female runners have led for years. It now emerges that, beneath the broad smiles they beam after shattering global track records, are broken and brutalised hearts.

After the thrill of every triumph comes the mortal fear of what lies in wait back home.

On returning to Kenya and after the celebratory reception at the airport with a bouquets of flowers and the signature sip from a gourd of traditional milk, mursik, most of these stars have to brace themselves for a terrifying reunion with abusive partners at home.

In one case, an expectant top athlete was physically assaulted by her spouse.

Some have even been assaulted on the same day they left the country for international races.

Yet they still brave the pain wrought by the beatings and bring home the medals, honour, national glory and lots of money.

Iten has over the years carved its place on the global map as the place where many athletes prefer to go for training before heading to local and international races, but the recent killings have somewhat dented that image.

On September 12 last year, a month before she was found dead, Tirop had shattered the world record in the women-only 10km road race in 30:01 at the Road to Records event in Herzogenaurach, Germany.

Her career in athletics took off when she won the world cross-country title in 2015 at the age of 19, to become the second youngest champion ever.

Six months after Tirop’s brutal murder, on April 19, the decomposing body of Damaris was discovered lying on the bed in a rental house at Lilies estate in Iten.

She had been strangled and her face covered with a pillow. An Ethiopian man said to be her lover, identified as Eskinda Hailemariam, is the prime suspect in the killing.

Nation Sport has established that a majority of elite athletes are battling a range of emotional and physical abuse.

Some are victims of extortion, especially where their earnings are channelled through their spouses.

It also emerged that many of the athletes are in come-we-stay relationships, largely owing to their poor backgrounds.

They arrive for training young, naïve and broke, which makes them easy prey for some of those who spot their potential long before they are exposed to the international tracks.

Victims of domestic abuse in the athletics fraternity are hesitant to speak openly due to stigma.

It is the reason retired marathoner Mary Keitany, 2021 New York Marathon runner-up Viola Lagat and Kenyan-Romanian long-distance runner Joan Chelimo and other athletes started the Agnes Tirop Angels Trust to help fight gender-based violence.

“I am lost for words because it is not even a year since we buried Tirop because of gender-based violence. It seems we are raising our voices but no one seems to be hearing and taking action. But we are determined to stand up against abuse of athletes,” Ms Lagat, the chairperson of the truct, said in Iten during a peaceful demonstration to protest the murder of Damaris.

According to Ms Lagat, a majority of female athletes receive their earnings through their husbands and boyfriends.

“People feel enslaved because they are the ones competing in races but have no control over their money,” she said.

Nation Sport learnt that the matter involves agents.

“They should channel the money directly to the athletes same as they do for our male counterparts,” she said.

She said athletes are probably killed when they start asking questions about finances. Tirop’s uncle Jeremiah Sawe also said the family believes she was killed for her wealth, adding that the plot to kill her may have been hatched when she was in Japan for the Olympic games.

“By the time of her death, most of Tirop’s property had mysteriously changed hands. What was shocking is that the property changed hands three months to her death and some were disposed of. This made us believe she was killed because of her wealth,” Mr Sawe told Nation Sport.

He said even the plot where she was killed was not listed in her name.

“A total of 12 plots had changed ownership. There are also no documents for several vehicles,” claimed Mr Sawe.

“Since her death, we have recovered and gained custody of some property, including 40 rental units in Kesses after an Eldoret court gave her father Vincent Tirop the right to be the administrator, pending hearing and determination of the case filed by the family.”

Ms Lagat called on Athletics Kenya (AK) needs to act and “weed out rogue elements who have been giving the sector a bad name.”

Iten hosts more than 5,000 athletes on any given day as well as hundreds of their agents and coaches.

Kenyan-Romanian long-distance runner Joan Chelimo, a trustee at Agnes Tirop Angels Trust, told the Nation Sport that abuse among elite athletes was rampant.

“We don’t want any other person to go through what Agnes went through. We are encouraged when we see athletes coming forward to share their experiences,” she said, adding that they are often asked by curious foreigners what is happening to athletes in Kenya.

According to Ms Chelimo, some of the big names in the industry do not attend domestic violence seminars and instead deride those organising the forums.

Mr Nahashon Kibon, an athletics coach, urged athletes to open up on their problems before it is too late.

“It is not in dispute that female athletes are suffering in silence because of money and relationship issues. They need to seek help before they get killed,” he said, adding that fame had seen some athletes cut ties with the public.

“Some crooks come under the guise of coaching. They identify an innocent athlete and before she knows it, she has entrusted all her resources to a stranger. Some are brainwashed to the point that they stay out of touch with their relatives,” he said.

Elgeyo-Marakwet Governor Alex Tolgos termed trend in Iten unfortunate.

“This latest killing has exposed a serious problem within the athletics fraternity that needs urgent intervention,” said Mr Tolgos.

Following Tirop’s killing, the county government and the United Nations Population Fund held meetings on gender-based violence with athletes and their coaches in Iten.

“We thought this would deter further violence and murder, but the latest incident has taken us back to the drawing board. I call upon the Ministry of Sports to work with us to develop guidelines to govern foreign athletes who come into the country for residential training,” said the governor.

He advised AK to come up with rules and guidelines to guarantee the safety of young female athletes.