The last time Viola Cheptoo spent time with Agnes Tirop was in September, when Tirop shattered a world record.
The Kenyan runners went to Herzogenaurach, Germany to compete in the Adizero Road to Records, an event organized by their professional sponsor, Adidas. When Tirop arrived at the athlete hotel and saw her longtime rival heading to her room, she ran over and hugged her, Cheptoo recalled.
“For the rest of the time that we spent there, we just talked and I kept reminding [Tirop] of how she used to kick my butt on the track, especially when she was still young and I had just graduated from college and become a professional athlete,” Cheptoo, 32, told Runner’s World.
On Sunday, September 12, Cheptoo and other runners watched from the top of a building at the Adidas headquarters as Tirop chased the women’s-only world record in the 10K (30:29). That summer, Tirop finished just off a medal with a fourth-place finish in the 5,000-meter final at the Tokyo Games, and she looked poised to make history on the roads that day.
“We love her,” Cheptoo said. “She’s nice to everybody, and so I think for everyone, she was the favorite in that field.”
After blazing through the first 5K in 15:00, Tirop broke away from her competitor Sheila Chepkirui with two kilometers left in the race. She held her lead through the finish line to win in 30:01, obliterating the previous women’s-only world record of 30:29 set by Asmae Leghzaoui in 2002.
“I remember jumping up and down with my friends,” Cheptoo said about the moment Tirop crossed the finish line. “It was just a magical moment for her and for everybody.”
Four weeks later, on October 13, the world record-holder was found stabbed to death at her home in Iten, Kenya. According to the Associated Press, police went searching for Tirop’s husband, Ibrahim Rotich after his family reported he called them crying, asking for God’s forgiveness for something he did. On October 15, the Kenya National Police Service announced in a tweet that they had arrested Rotich in Mombasa after he went on the run.
Tirop’s funeral was held in Iten on October 23, on what would have been her 26th birthday. More than 1,000 mourners attended the ceremony honoring the two-time world championship bronze medalist—including Cheptoo, who gave a powerful speech urging Kenyan government officials in attendance to take action against gender-based violence.
“I’m standing here because something has to be done, and it has to be done now, not tomorrow, not any other day. It has to start today,” the 2016 Olympian said to the crowd, while standing next to Tirop’s casket. “We are here because we are putting our sister to rest, but we are also here to raise our voices. We need to be heard as women. We need people to understand that we are not tools. We are not anyone’s property.”
Now, in response to Tirop’s death, Cheptoo, along with elite marathoners Mary Wacera Ngugi, Joan Chelimo, and many others in the elite running community have come together to raise awareness, create resources to support victims of violence, and prevent others from experiencing abuse.
In interviews with Runner’s World, Cheptoo, Ngugi, and Chelimo shared that what happened to Tirop is the tragic result of gender-based violence and abuse towards women, a crisis that permeates the elite running community and beyond in Kenya.
The Reality Facing Kenyan Women Runners
Ngugi, 32, who finished third at this year’s Boston Marathon, said that it’s “very common” for Kenyan women in the elite running community to be controlled by their husbands and used for their athletic earnings. She explained that these runners’ husbands often start out as their coaches or pacers and ultimately exert total control over their careers.
“As we speak, it is happening to some of the big names in athletics,” Ngugi said. “Most people don't really know what happens because people out there see us just winning races, they see us breaking records, but they actually don't know what happens behind the scenes.”
Ngugi, Cheptoo, and Chelimo said this cycle of abuse often begins at certain youth running camps in Kenya. Girls come from remote villages with the goal of developing into international distance running stars, which can be a lucrative opportunity to support themselves and their families. Some camps are safe environments for athletes. Ngugi, for example, attended a camp with many girls who all trained under one coach. He paid for their school fees and the camp’s sponsor provided them with gear.
But a number of young runners don’t have access to those resources at other camps that aren’t fully funded, which leaves them vulnerable to predators, she said.
In these unsafe environments—where the runners oftentimes don’t know anyone and don’t have the funds to support themselves while being far from familial support—men prey on girls by promising connections, money, gear, or sponsorships. The runners are then ultimately manipulated into marriage or long-term partnerships.
“[The runners] feel like this person actually cares for them because they have always been there for them. What they don’t know is that these men usually have an agenda,” Ngugi said. “They usually do that on purpose because they know this girl is going to go out there and break the record, conquer the world, make loads of money, which means if she does that and she is under me and I have married her, it means I am the one who is going to be in charge of her world.”
Chelimo, 30, is a survivor of this kind of abuse. “I was abused. All my money was taken. I was one month pregnant, and I walked out, and I am okay. I am an example,” Chelimo said. “Many of them that I know have walked out and they've been okay. Some are still in, I'll call it ‘jail.’ If I’m an example to them, maybe they can change their mind because they see me in London running. They see me all over the world, and I’m okay. My daughter is okay.”
She said that Tirop faced these tragic circumstances early on in her career. “Many girls in schools, they are manipulated, their athletics earnings are taken away,” she said. “Like Agnes for instance, her property was in the husband's name. She was just nothing. She was used, she was like a property. She was like a tool.”
Cheptoo said that prior to Tirop’s death, she learned that her husband was “misusing her money,” and she had moved to a different training camp in an attempt to distance herself.
“She was trying to break away from this guy, and he wasn’t having it. He was just lazy, somebody who wanted to use her and she was actually growing up and realizing that it’s not okay,” Cheptoo said. “It’s just hard to know that somebody actually died because she couldn’t take being used anymore.”
On Monday, October 15, Rotich appeared in court as a suspect in Tirop’s murder. Iten chief magistrate Charles Kutwa told News9 that Rotich will remain in police custody for 20 days while authorities complete their investigation. He also said Rotich will undergo a mental assessment. According to Nation, police said Rotich confessed to killing Tirop before he fled their Iten home. He left a note in which he admitted to killing her and said their “relationship was full of fights.”
“The autopsy report and the suspect’s confession note, together with the murder weapons—a knife and a wooden club (rungu), have given us overwhelming evidence which points to murder,” Andolo Munga, the Keiyo North sub county director of criminal investigations, told Nation.
While reflecting on Tirop’s death and the many others who are suffering, Chelimo pointed out that the issue of violence against women in Kenya also lies within societal norms, expressing that people often don’t intervene when they see or hear of abuse taking place. In many cases, the blame is placed on the victims themselves.
“It’s like violence is normalized,” she said. “If you talk about someone who was violent to you, people will talk about you. ... So, some of them just decide to keep it to themselves.”
Saying No to Violence
Chelimo wants that to change. Ten days after she finished seventh in 2:21:23 at the London Marathon, Chelimo answered a phone call from her husband who informed her that Tirop, her former training partner, was killed. Devastated by the loss, she wondered if the outcome could have been different had Tirop been provided with a safe space to share what she was going through. As a survivor of abuse, Chelimo knows the importance of having allies and aims to be one for others in similar situations.
After escaping her abusive relationship, Chelimo moved in with her parents and gave birth to her daughter, Ariana in 2015. In 2016, she met her now-husband and coach Julien Di Maria. “I’m lucky. I got a good husband because he supports me, what I do, and my career,” Chelimo said. “I became someone else. That's why you know me, or else I would be dead or I would be in the village, just nobody.”
Among her community of elite runners, many of which have come together to honor Tirop’s memory, Chelimo said she’s used her experience to help several women escape abusive relationships with the hope that they too can lead healthy, happy lives. “ I am like their mother now. They were from abusive relationships, and I made sure they were out, and they did not know how to start. I told them you can make it,” Chelimo said, pointing out that these women have gone on to thrive and even win major races.
“I’m so proud because it's like a calling for me,” she said.
Now, Chelimo and Cheptoo, in partnership with members of Tirop’s family and several other elite female runners in Iten—including four-time New York City Marathon winner Mary Keitany and Amsterdam Marathon winner Angela Tanui—have formed a group that is working with Kenyan government officials to combat violence against women.
Together, they want to advocate for legislation that protects women and create a nonprofit organization that supports those who are experiencing abuse and builds safer environments for future generations of runners. Through awareness initiatives, education programs for girls, and counseling services, among other resources, the group aims to provide a safe space for athletes and help them learn how to avoid abusive relationships, know their rights, and feel empowered as individuals.
A few days after Tirop’s death, Cheptoo and Chelimo created a WhatsApp group text, which is only open to Kenyan female runners, with the goal of providing a forum for women to share their thoughts and experiences without judgement. The group also hopes to create education programs for men to teach the importance of fostering healthy relationships and saying no to violence.
“Something has to happen because our girls are being killed every single day, and it’s just another number,” Cheptoo said. “Nothing happens. Nobody takes the initiative to do anything. And I’m saying no.”
As Chelimo shared, running has empowered Kenyan women to break free of long-standing gender norms in which they are expected to stay home, cook, clean and take care of children. The sport allows these runners to compete around the world, gain self-confidence and strength, and be exposed to different cultures. “[Running] is creating a very good impact on our athletes, especially the female athletes,” she said. “They discover themselves because most of the athletes did not finish school.”
But in order to assume full independence and avoid manipulation, the group wants athletes to prioritize their education first, a message they hope to emphasize through the organization’s efforts.
Additionally, as Chelimo pointed out, the individuals in the group are regarded as fierce rivals in running circles, but Tirop’s death brought them together for a greater purpose.
“Women in sport are seen as more enemies than friends, so I told my friends that we should come together,” Chelimo said. “We are friends.”
Last week, the first initiative was launched in Tirop’s memory with the goal of uplifting women in the sport. Ngugi partnered with British long jumper Jazmin Sawyers and sprinter Jodie Williams to create the Women’s Athletic Alliance, a new online platform aimed to highlight the stories of East African runners and provide support through mentorship and counseling services to athletes suffering from domestic abuse.
“I hope someone who is going through this and they see us speaking about it, maybe they can have the courage to walk away. Maybe they can have the courage to leave that abusive marriage. Maybe they can even have the courage to reach out and speak to people,” Ngugi said. “I’m hoping that Tirop’s death was not in vain.”