Tegla Loroupe: An inspiration on International Women's Day
If Tegla Loroupe isn’t a household name around the world, it is probably fair to say she should be. A Kenyan long distance runner, she was twice winner of the New York Marathon, won the London Marathon in 2000 and she also picked up multiple half-marathon world titles in her career.
For many, such a successful sporting career would be enough. But Loroupe’s upbringing in rural Kenya was characterised by a burning sense of social justice and desire for equality.
“I was the babysitter at the age of three – just helping mothers take care of their kids. Around the age of seven, I realised I had the power to help others. I just didn’t know how.”
To have this self-awareness at such a young age is rare, but there were other reasons for choosing sport too as Loroupe explains, “I had 24 siblings and the school was very far - I had to fight to be a good student. It’s so difficult for girls to go to school where I grew up. I went to school alone without permission. I did sports because I was trying to be better than my brothers! I had no idea that I would end up as an elite athlete.”
That she did end up as an elite athlete was testament to her talent, but always bubbling underneath was that sense of social justice and before long, she began to see sport as the means to an end.
“As I started to run, I began to see Kipchoge Keino as a role model. I wanted to do something to have an impact on communities where there was conflict, but I needed to be known. All along I wanted to fight to have a good name so that I could talk to politicians and having a good name is having the best results in sport.”
And as she built her name and reputation, so her work outside sport began to make an impact. She created an annual series of peace marathons involving warriors and nomadic groups in Kenya, Uganda and Sudan in an attempt to bring peace to areas impacted by warring tribes. She also established a school and orphanage for children from her own region of Kenya.
Her involvement with Laureus began with programme visits to Tanzania and Uganda – as she herself says, “I was given a Laureus t-shirt and joined in with training kids. It’s what I love.”
She continued, “When Laureus came to me and said, ‘Tegla, we need you to be ambassador for Sport for Good,’ I said sure. I have been doing this my whole life. It’s in my DNA and I’m really proud to work with Laureus Sport For Good. When you retire, you still have your name. But instead of doing our own thing, we can do good for others.”
And it’s fair to say Loroupe’s work has not gone unnoticed around the world. She is a United Nations sport ambassador and UNICEF representative, alongside Laureus and her own Foundation.
In 2016, she was appointed by the IOC as the Chef de Mission for the newly created Refugee team which sent a team to the Rio Olympic Games.
“I have always helped refugees. I see them as human beings, I see kids who need help – and I see myself in them,” she explains. “I’m from a conflict area. At one stage I was told I couldn’t represent my country because I came from the wrong area and that I was the daughter of criminals.”
Loroupe shakes her head as she recalls this moment.
“I said, ‘What has that got to do with being a good athlete?’ Of course the stigma stayed with me. And when I saw the way refugees were being treated, I say you know what? They are not criminals. They are just like me.”
Loroupe began training refugees and found talented and determined athletes. And it was a visit from IOC President Thomas Bach that sowed the seeds for the refugee team.
“When Thomas visited my project in Kenya, he said he wanted to help what I was doing,” she smiles. “I couldn’t have done it without Thomas and the IOC. They do so much work with many projects on the ground. Like Laureus, they have incredible influence. We all have to shout more about how sport can make a difference!”
Tegla Loroupe is a diminutive figure, with a smile that lights up her face and a softly spoken voice, but you suspect that people in power are left in no doubt that underneath the surface is a passionate and hugely influential advocate for women, refugees and all humanity.
Her fellow Kenyan, Eliud Kipchoge is in no doubt about Loroupe’s influence.
“Tegla is a powerful woman. She is a passionate sportswoman and a legend around the world. She is a peacemaker.”
Seven year old Tegla Loroupe would have been happy with that.