The murder of Agnes Tirop, a “wake-up call” for women athletes in Kenya

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The funeral of athlete Agnes Tirop, who was found stabbed to death, took place Saturday in Kenya. The murder of this rising figure in athletics lifts the veil on the violence suffered by women athletes in this East African country.

The rising star of Kenyan athletics Agnes Tirop, stabbed to death, was buried, Saturday, October 23 at Kenya, in his childhood village, Mosoriot, located about thirty kilometers south of Eldoret. This murder revealed the hidden, sometimes tragic, side of the success of female athletes in a very masculine society.

Two-time Kenyan Olympic champion David Rudisha and Ugandan gold medalists Joshua Cheptegei and Peruth Chemutai attended his funeral in the middle of a crowd where many wore the distinctive red jersey of Kenyan athletes.

Social pressures, depression, financial exploitation… There are many risks for young women facing meteoric success. They often come from their entourages, coaches, agents or even their relatives.

“Women athletes have to carry the burden of an entire family,” says former marathon runner Mary Keitany, days after her former training partner Agnes Tirop was stabbed to death at her home. She was 25 years old.

Arrested by the police, the husband of the promising double world medalist of the 10 000 m (3e in 2017 and 2019) and 4e from the Tokyo Olympics over 5,000 m is the main suspect.

Success often threatened by athletes’ spouses

During her career, Keitany has seen many young athletes, such as Agnes Tirop, struggle to balance their demanding sporting lives with social expectations and pressures, including marriage and motherhood, while being the main financial support of their extended family.

According to the four-time winner of the New York Marathon, many of these young women who have dedicated themselves to their sport from an early age, do not have the education to manage their finances and can therefore be used as “cash cows” by greedy spouses.

“They realize when it’s too late that their investment is slipping away and they go into depression,” says the retired athlete, mother of two.

As with Tirop, born into a peasant family in the Rift Valley, sporting success is for many Kenyans the best way out of poverty. They invest themselves in training camps, places that often escape the rules and known to be hotbeds of sexual drifts.

Two camps in the Rift Valley have been shut down in recent years by the Kenya Athletics Federation (AK) for allegedly exploiting young women. “There are so many wolves out there waiting to take on these girls,” says Tegla Loroupe, a 48-year-old former marathon world record holder.

“Most suffer in silence”

Agents pay families to convince them to “force girls to drop out of school prematurely and compete in races abroad,” she adds. “Young athletes can’t handle the fame and money that comes to them so suddenly,” says Wilfred Bungei, the 2008 Olympic 800m champion who now counsels struggling athletes after battling alcoholism himself.

Young men spend their wealth on luxury cars or alcohol, while women may face toxic relationships with predatory men, he says. “Tirop’s death is a wake-up call,” Kenya federation spokesman Dominic Ondieki told AFP.

“Athletes are now opening up and revealing the problems they face in their homes. It seems that most suffer in silence”, he points out: “They seem to lack the decision-making power that is often left to their husbands who take full control of the family finances”.

In December, the federation organizes a workshop on women’s economic and social rights in their homes and relationships, in the presence of sports psychologists and family counsellors. But according to many observers, the work remains huge to support the young women who make the glory of this East African country.

With AFP

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