The death of Olympian Agnes Tirop just over a year ago pushed the long distance-runner to form a women-only running club, the first of its kind in Kenya, that is helping raise public awareness of violence against women, and also pushing to empower female coaches.
Kenya’s long-distance runner Mary Ngugi has fond memories of her early days in the training camps.
As an upcoming athlete, her excitement would sometimes turn to fear.
She often worried about keeping up with men’s intense pace as she trained in Nyahururu, a town in the Southern Rift Valley in Kenya.
As a 17-year-old, she had heard of allegations of harassment and sexual abuse in some of the runners’ training camps. It scared her and she was constantly on alert in camp.
But Ngugi knows several talented girls who were not so lucky and were forced to give up on their dreams.
“Most of these girls in these camps don’t say anything because they risk being chased out,” she said in an interview with Olympics.com
“When I was a junior [up until now] I know and have seen bad things happening in training camps to naïve young girls… I’m like, ‘This shouldn’t be happening,””
Now an established marathoner, Ngugi decided to set up the first all-girls training camp in Kenya, a place where the young athletes will also be guided and mentored by female coaches.
“We needed to give them a safe place where they can be themselves, where they can train without feeling they are in the shadow of men all the time.”
The spark to open an all-female-training camp
Since the shocking murder of the 25-year-old Olympian, female athletes in Kenya like Ngugi, have been using their voices to stand up for their colleagues and other girls who are victims of gender-based violence.
It also prompted the Kenyan Government, through the Sports Ministry, to form a Gender Welfare and Equality committee led by long-distance Olympic star Catherine Ndereba.
In January 2022, the committee presented a report that found that 11 per cent of about 500 athletes, mainly runners, had suffered some form of abuse in sport.
These statistics confirmed many female athletes’ fears, and spurred Ngugi into action.
In addition to forming the Women’s Athletics Alliance, “to help the next generation avoid the suffering that so many female athletes have gone through”, she went further.
The runner, who finished third at the 2021 and 2022 Boston Marathon, set up the Nala Track Club, an exceptional athletics training camp.
“Women’s Athletics Alliance was more about empowering women, mentorship. And then we thought, it’s not just about mentorship, it’s not just about talking to these girls. We need to do something, give them a safe place,” said Ngugi.
“We thought it’s better to start a club where these girls can be themselves, free without the fear of like, I have to do certain things for me to (maintain) position at the camp. We also want this camp to have female coaches. So we are trying to help the female coaches develop and get more skills.”
An ideal setup to help raise public awareness of violence against women. This year, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women was marked on 25 November.
The athlete, whose best track result was 5000m bronze at the 2006 World Junior Championships, knows all too well how coaches and managers hold athletes’ future in their hands.
Ngugi began running while in high school in Nyahururu, 150km northwest of the capital Nairobi and one of Kenya’s athletics-rich regions known for producing champion runners.
As a teenager, she was aware of reports of sexual abuse in some runners’ camps that had forced Athletics Kenya to shut down some of these facilities. Sadly, the sexual misconduct and emotional abuse in the training camps continues.
“I was lucky. I joined a camp that was really strict,” recalled the 2007 African junior 5000m champion.
“But I know about girls who got pregnant while we were in camp, but it’s the girls who were sent home. The boys continued chasing their dreams. It’s the girl’s fault, they have a baby and forget their dreams.
“Or sometimes at these camps, sometimes the girls are forced to do things that they don’t want to do” she explained on the manipulation of vulnerable young female athletes by administrators and agents.
“But it’s like, ‘If I don’t do what I’m asked to do, I might lose my position in the camp, I could go back home’. Most of the athletes in Kenya, like me, we come from humble backgrounds, and you don’t want to go back there.” – Mary Ngugi
Girls at the Nala Track Club in Nyahururu, Kenya
More than a training camp
Since Tirop’s death, Ngugi has been seeking opportunities to extend her support towards women’s empowerment.
Then she founded the Nala Track Club.
The club so far has five athletes aged between 16 and 22 with the plan to expand to 12 runners.
As well as helping them become better runners, she is also supporting their education.
“Some of the girls, when they join camps to begin training to become athletes, stop going to school because most camps don’t support this, while others are from very poor backgrounds and their parents cannot afford to pay their school fees.
“We are paying for their school fees and encouraging them to go to school. We also want to empower them for them to have a voice in society, not just in matters of athletics. When they are out there, they can communicate and speak out.”
Combining sports with education has been proven to boost girls’ sports.
In Kenya, government figures show that most girls have to give up sporting passions to pursue an education while female athletes who choose to continue studying are discouraged from continuing sport.
Ngugi is not only highlighting the importance of education in sport, but also finding the right mentors to work with the girls at her self-funded camp.
Developing women coaches
Sports participation among Kenyan women is growing and, at Tokyo 2020 last year, women outnumbered men (49 to 36) for the first time at an Olympic Games.
But women coaches are still thin on the ground across sports as a whole and particularly in the nation’s premier discipline of athletics.
A recent survey conducted by the Kenyan Sports Ministry revealed that 84 per cent of athletes said they would welcome more women coaches.
Ngugi, 33, is for now working with her former coach Francis Kamau, Athletics Kenya and the UK-based Female Coaching Network to train female coaches in her home region.
Her short-term goal is to have female coaches work with the girls at the Nala Track club but, more importantly, inspire her fellow athletes to consider coaching once retired from the sport.
“I want to be in an Olympic team with a few female coaches, not just male coaches. I don’t want the women to be in the teams as chaperones.
“I would like to see that the head coach is a woman. And not just coaches it would be great to see female agents. You will never go to a track and see a woman coach. I’ve been here in Nyahururu for more than 10 years. I’ve never seen one.”
The two-time medallist at the World Half Marathon Championships believes having more female coaches will also make sports more attractive to girls.
“When girls see we have a female coach at the camp, they know they can trust this coach. If they have questions, like when it comes to matters of monthly periods, it is always hard for young girls like those who get intense menstrual cramps that affect their performances and training, to fully explain their condition to the male coaches.”
Mary Ngugi of Kenya crosses the finish line for third place during the 125th Boston Marathon on October 11, 2021 in Boston, Massachusetts. (2021 Getty Images)
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