Why you should care

Even the most powerful female athletes need basic protections.

Tucked in a lush valley surrounded by mountains, Yaya Village is nothing short of a runner’s mecca. There’s a four-star resort complete with a 3,500-square-foot gym and access to physiotherapists, not to mention meals “optimized for athletes” and a nearby forest with miles of jogging trails. And why shouldn’t there be? After all, runners are considered a national treasure here in Ethiopia.

But pull aside some of the women who’ve passed through during training stints and they’ll tell you about their sport’s skeleton in the closet. Today, one long-distance runner recounts when she moved from the rural area of Bulga to practice with a club in Addis Ababa. She says that her coach called her into a meeting to discuss her upcoming plans for a race, and then suddenly started kissing her. Stunned, the runner says she grabbed a fork from a nearby table and stabbed her coach in the leg. His explanation to others? “He said that I had injured myself and he was just trying to massage the injury,” she says.

To the international community, Ethiopia is a star of the running world. The country of 96 million always has a slew of long-distance athletes on the podium. But is the nation quietly allowing its patriarchal approach to creep into how young female athletes are being treated? According to interviews with a dozen female runners, many say they are sexually exploited and abused by male coaches and agents at an alarming rate. The common complaint is that male coaches expect sex from their female runners, and the runners say that reflects broader societal norms there. After all, forced marriages among girls as young as 15 affect 16 percent of women in Ethiopia, according to UNICEF, while over 40 percent of girls end up wed before their 18th birthday.

Few runners in this region of the world are likely to report abuse, in part because there’s just too much on the line financially.

Of course, sexual abuse of athletes continues to be a problem in sports more broadly. In one famous case, Ugandan long-distance runner and Commonwealth Games gold medal winner Moses Kipsiro was among a group of athletes that accused a coach of sexually harassing female runners, a case that led to rape charges. But Ethiopia as a country may be more prone to such problems, given its greater involvement in running.

Few runners in this region of the world, for example, are likely to report abuse, in part because there’s just too much on the line financially. Women who come forward risk getting blacklisted by running clubs or other coaches, jeopardizing prize money for races that generate anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $1 million for the world’s top marathons, plus sponsor bonuses that can top $100,000 — hefty sums in a nation where per capita income is only around $470, and “substantially lower” than the regional average, the World Bank says. Because running is seen as a way out of poverty, and many women leave their families and then end up without support systems, they can be especially vulnerable to sexual predators, says Jerry Rothwell, a director who spent 3 1/2 years traveling in Ethiopia while following runners for the documentary film Town of Runners. “Things can happen,” he says.

The country rose to fame for its runners when Abebe Bikila won the country’s first Olympic gold medal in 1960 — after completing the marathon barefoot. He won the gold again four years later (this time wearing shoes), before highly decorated runners such as Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele strolled into the limelight. It wasn’t until 1992, in Barcelona, when Derartu Tulu put her foot down and became the first Ethiopian woman to win that coveted gold medal. More recently, Meseret Defar (both in 2004 and 2012) and Tirunesh Dibaba (twice in 2008 and then again in 2012) also garnered top Olympic spots, while up-and-comer Genzebe Dibaba smashed a 22-year-old world record this summer during a 1,500-meter run, further fueling female empowerment back home.

Despite their growing prominence, women aren’t always included at the table when they’re looking to partner with an agency or coach. During meetings like these in Ethiopia, Malcolm Anderson, an athletics agent who founded the management agency Moyo Sports, says he’s been told to meet with a runner’s husband or boyfriend instead of the woman herself. “I am told he calls the shots,” says Anderson. Still, he now insists the female athlete be present, and the nonprofit he co-founded called Running Across Borders, which works in the Ethiopian town of Bekoji, has also hired a female coach because “females would feel far more comfortable speaking and being mentored by someone who understood their issues, especially younger athletes.”

Other running-focused groups are also trying to empower female athletes in Ethiopia. Girls Gotta Run Foundation provides young athletes with sponsorships to both train and stay in school, while Yaya Girls, a nongovernmental organization that promotes gender equality through running and education, provides a safe space for female runners to discuss sexual abuse issues, and also teaches them about human rights and gender equality. And though the Ethiopian Athletic Federation didn’t respond to requests for comment, the governing body for track and field events — the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) — tells OZY that sexual as well as physical, verbal and mental harassment is prohibited from athletics. “Anything of this nature should of course be immediately reported to the police and any other relevant legal or judicial authority in the country concerned,” IAAF spokesman Chris Turner says in a statement.

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