In the family living room, the television on which Agnes Tirop’s 95-year-old grandfather used to watch his talented granddaughter compete was now the one broadcasting her funeral.
A portrait of the smiling young woman, who just two weeks earlier had set a world record for a 10,000 metre race in Germany, sat next to it, beneath a pile of red and white roses.
Agnes’s funeral took place on Oct 23, the same day she would have turned 26. Under a white gazebo with ribbons in the colours of the Kenyan flag, thousands of mourners, including top athletes and government officials, gathered near her parents’ home in Nandi County – known as the “source of champions” for its reputation in producing the world’s best runners – to bid the athlete farewell.
Agnes, who was found stabbed to death at home in the Rift Valley of western Kenya, was a rising star in the country’s highly competitive running circuit, finishing fourth in the 5,000m at the Tokyo Olympics.
“It’s just crazy because I still picture her running that race in Germany when we were all cheering for her,” said Viola Cheptoo Lagat, sister of Bernard Lagat and an athlete in her own right, who watched Agnes’s record-breaking final win.
“She was really happy as she had achieved one of her life goals to break a world record. Now she had big dreams.”
While a police investigation is still ongoing, Tirop’s partner, Ibrahim Rotich – reportedly 20 years her senior – is in custody and the main suspect, according to the region’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations, Andolo Munga. “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,” he told the Nation.
Friends and family say they had recently learnt of Rotich’s emotional, physical and financial abusive behaviour towards Agnes.
“After she came back from the Olympics, Agnes moved back home, as she told us this man [Rotich] had slapped her and threatened to break her legs with a rungu,” said Vincent Tirop, father of Agnes. “We told her to stay home and train, so every morning she’d run on that road outside,” he said, pointing to a rust-coloured track.
But as rainy season descended, the dirt road became a mudslide, Agnes decided to move 38 miles north to the Kenya Athletics training camp in Iten to prepare for her next race. Iten is also the town where she shared a home with Rotich. “We thought she would be safe there because the coach told us there were security guards watching over the grounds,” Vincent added.
‘I did not see Agnes, I thought she was asleep’
On the cool evening of Oct 11, Evelyn Tirop, the late athlete’s younger sister, who is also a runner, said Rotich arrived at the camp with a male friend requesting to see Agnes.
“Agnes told me they were forcing her to go back with them, so I accompanied her to his homestead,” said Evelyn, 20, who says she was concerned for her sister’s safety after learning of the abuse. “But they looked happy and he didn’t show any issues, so I went to sleep in the next room.”
The following morning, Evelyn woke early and found Rotich in the living room. She said he had a strange request: that she should go to the butcher to buy meat.
“It was only 7.30 in the morning, so I told him I could go later because I had to collect my certificate [from school],” she said. “I did not see Agnes, I thought she was asleep.”
Later that day, Evelyn says she received a call from Rotich telling her not to return to the house, as he and Agnes would be taking a trip to Nairobi. When she asked to speak with her sister, Rotich told her she was unavailable.
When she reached her parents’ village, Evelyn received another call, this time from a cousin of Rotich, who asked if she knew the whereabouts of Agnes because she and Rotich had had an altercation. An unease filled her stomach and the young girl tried phoning her sister multiple times, but the line was off.
Evelyn and her parents decided to report Agnes as missing to the Iten Police station. The next morning, Agnes was found dead, laying in a pool of blood.
Agnes’s closest friend and fellow athlete, Caroline Chepkoech, said she learnt of the news on her way back from the Boston Marathon. “I was shocked,” said the former African junior champion, “She was done with this guy; I don’t know how he convinced her to go back.”
Peres Jepchirchir said Agnes had opened up about the abuse after Jepchirchir, the Olympic marathon champion, questioned why she had missed a recent athletics marketing event. “She told me she had been injured by her boyfriend and showed me photos of her ear swollen,” said the 28-year-old. “She also showed me some photos of her boyfriend spending money in clubs with ladies.
She realised he was using her money in a bad way, so she decided to stop supporting him and he became very angry.”
“He was very jealous and controlling,” Cheptoo Lagat added. “He was draining her of her money, her energy and her spirit.”
‘She was like a mum to a lot of girls’
Friends describe Agnes as a religious person, who loved gospel music and dancing in church.
She was passionate about education, said Cheptoo Lagat, even though she had not been able to continue her own studies, and paid for the school fees of several local children. “She was like a mum to a lot of girls in the village,” she said. “They looked up to her as she had nothing growing up, and now, she was a world-class athlete.”
Kenya Athletics along with the government of Nandi County, family and friends, are creating a foundation in Agnes Tirop’s name to help victims of domestic violence, as well as setting up scholarships for girls.
“We’re going to raise our voices. We will not let her death be in vain,” said Cheptoo Lagat. “Everywhere she went she drew people close to her because of her warmth and her spirit and we want to honour her memory.”