NAIROBI (Reuters) - Lack of education, sexist male officials and traditional views on marriage remain major stumbling blocks for Kenyan girls aspiring to be athletes, says one of the country’s first female Olympians.
Lydia Stephens-Okech wants more women to get involved in sports administration to give young Kenyan women a better chance at Olympic success.
Despite the country’s running pedigree, no Kenyan woman has ever won an Olympic gold medal. Kenya’s men have won 17 golds, all but one in athletics, while the women have had to be content with a total of three silvers and one bronze.
“Some of the problems we faced still impede our female athletes’ advancement today and better ways must be found to help them,” said Stephens-Okech who was one of three female athletes when Kenya first included women in their Olympic team at the 1968 Games in Mexico.
“Parents must educate their daughters. Most of them just want their daughters to get married and have sons-in-law. It is a curse and a laughing stock if one’s daughter is not married,” Stephens-Okech told Reuters.
“(Girls) feel running is for children. Add this to the custom that equates girls to mothers and thus start discarding sports and you find immature women teeming in the village waiting to be married away.
“They don’t have much time, especially those in day school. After school, they are faced with domestic chores at home. They don’t have time to be children, to play and discover their talent. After marriage, however good runners they were, they are considered women, mothers, and discouraged from sport,” she said.
Stephens-Okech, who was with Tecla Chemabwai and Elizabeth Chesire in Mexico, added: “If a girl is popular, everyone starts seeking sexual favors, love affairs abound. Because of their naiveté, they easily fall for the trap.
“Male officials take them to hotels and, due to lack of exposure, they see electricity and running water for the first time and think they are on top of the world.”
She said education was the greatest means of empowering women and recommended talent-spotting potential athletes when they were young.
“Identify them at an early age and put them in boarding schools or well-managed camps where they can be fully trained,” she said.
She also wants women to get involved in the administration of the sport to push their agenda. Role models could include herself, Chemabwai and world 800m champion Janeth Jepkosgei, she suggested.
In 1968, Stephens-Okech, then 22 and a high-school student at the up-market, white-dominated Alliance Girls School, was a serious contender for 100 and 200 meters medals at the Olympics but limped off the track in her first race.
Chemabwai dropped out of the 200m and 400m races, while Chesire, an 800m runner, did not get beyond the first round.
Stephens-Okech, who held eastern African records over 100 and 220 yards, said the problems the women faced contributed to her early retirement from sport.
“There was sexual harassment female athletes had to contend with. I was particularly targeted by a male official who tried to coerce me into his hotel room during residential training,” she recalled.
“We had no good track to train on. The one at the then University College was not good enough. We had to travel long distances at short notice and were not allowed to complain.
“We were paid allowances of 20 Kenya shillings (now $0.28) per day but we went days on end without receiving it. Sometimes we were not even reimbursed our travel and medical expenses,” she said.
“Unfortunately, this contrasted sharply with three years previously when athletics was run by white officials. Our people spoiled the sport by poor organization.
“Even though the whites ran the sport well, the issue of race was a major hindrance to indigenous athletes. I was left out of the team for the 1965 All Africa Games in Brazzaville and replaced by Diana Monks, a white lady I had beaten in the trials.
“Food was terribly bad and accommodation pathetic. We were once booked in a 24-hour brothel during an international meeting in Mombasa while officials were booked in beach hotels. I was terribly embarrassed when I met a boy from my village who made the conclusion that I was selling my body,” she said.
“Athletes did not sleep the whole night as music blared from the juke box. As the team captain, I protested at this mistreatment of athletes and walked out of the team after my pleas for better accommodation were ignored.”
Editing by Clare Fallon