Killing of star runner makes Kenya confront scourge of abuse

Feb 24, 2022, 4:09 PM | Updated: Feb 25, 2022, 6:11 am
FILE - Hellen Obiri, Rosemary Monica Wanjiru and Agnes Tirop, from left to right, all of Kenya, com...

FILE - Hellen Obiri, Rosemary Monica Wanjiru and Agnes Tirop, from left to right, all of Kenya, compete in the women's 10,000 meters during the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar on Sept. 28, 2019. The brutal killing of Olympic runner Agnes Tirop in 2021 shows signs of being a turning point for Kenya in finally confronting a scourge of abuse and violence against female athletes. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

(AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

ELDORET, Kenya (AP) — The brutal killing of Olympic runner Agnes Tirop last year shows signs of being a turning point for Kenya in finally confronting a scourge of abuse and violence against female athletes that hasn’t been spoken about or even acknowledged until now.

Tirop was stabbed to death at her home last October, a month after she set a new world record and two months after running at the Tokyo Olympics. Her partner has been charged with murder in her killing.

While the tragedy was a brief global headline, it has provoked a much deeper reckoning in Kenya, which has provided the sport with countless champions and tales of triumph. But for years, young female athletes have been abused by partners, coaches and others and their stories have gone untold or been ignored, current and former athletes say. The East African country’s track and field authorities also now concede the terrible secret.

Horrified by Tirop’s death, athletes are finally speaking out.

“I found the courage because when I saw how my friend Agnes was butchered, it was so painful,” said Ruth Bosibori, a teenage sensation 15 years ago before she said her life and career were damaged by an abusive relationship.

Bosibori won the 2007 African title in the 3,000 meters steeplechase aged 19, running barefoot. The same year she finished fourth at the world championships, setting the world junior record. She was set for stardom. But she began a relationship with another athlete who she said abused her physically and emotionally and eventually took the house, the car, and her money.

“He took everything, everything which I worked for,” Bosibori said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t own anything.”

She asked that the AP not name her ex-partner.

Bosibori is now 34 and hopes to compete again but that will be incredibly difficult, her best days lost. Her story reflects many of the intertwined issues that have led to abuse going unchallenged for so long.

She was young and vulnerable, just out of school. She had no support from athletics officials. She told her family but in their misguided respect for tradition they advised her against speaking out. And she was in Kenya, where a national study found more than 40% of women reported some kind of abuse at the hands of husbands or partners.

“My mother would tell me, ‘Just be patient, things will be OK.’ So, you know, our mothers just see it as normal, they went through the same,” Bosibori said.

Kenyan sports lawyer Sarah Ochwada has seen young female athletes, some minors, facing “all sorts of abuse.” There’s a trend. The most talented are targeted because of their potential to make money. The abusers always promise to protect them.

“But over time, it’s those same protectors who begin to abuse them if the female athletes attempt to seek their own independence or use their own finances,” Ochwada wrote in an email. Ochwada found the partners often control everything, the athletes’ money, their careers and even when they have children. They can’t talk on the phone or go anywhere without the partner being there.

BREAKING POINT

The killing of Tirop, a 25-year-old two-time world championship bronze medalist who was stabbed multiple times and left to die on her bed, was the breaking point.

On the eve of her burial, hundreds of athletes marched in Eldoret, one of Kenya’s famous distance-running training towns, in protest at Tirop’s slaying. Tirop was killed in another nearby running town, Iten. Many of Kenya’s champions have emerged from this region but it’s now clear many others have been used, abused and discarded.

The abuse started a “very long time ago … it was not mentioned,” said Mary Keitany, a four-time New York Marathon winner. Keitany, who retired last year, formed the Tirop Angels group with four other current or former athletes after Tirop was killed. It encourages young athletes not to stay silent if they fall victim.

She also criticized Athletics Kenya (AK), the track and field body, for being largely absent when it should be keeping a close watch on young runners. AK has now recognized the problem and recently held meetings with athletes.

“We have learned a lot,” said Milcah Chemos, an AK executive who says the abuse “has been going on since athletics started” in Kenya, with nothing done about it.

Men have also raised their voices, like three-time steeplechase world champion Moses Kiptanui, who told officials to “wake up” before it’s too late for another young athlete.

Marathon runner Joan Chelimo was once in an abusive relationship but reclaimed her life and career. Bosibori is desperately trying. Tirop never got the chance.

“I was lucky,” Chelimo said. “I did not die.”

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Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa.

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Killing of star runner makes Kenya confront scourge of abuse