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About time we brought investigative journalism to sports

It’s a little over two months since the world’s fastest marathoner, Kelvin Kiptum, lost his life in a road accident. He was favoured to win the 2024 Olympics, starting July/August.

Kiptum was not the first elite athlete to die so young and in their prime and certainly will not be the last – unless our sports journalists go beyond writing for entertainment and begin digging deeper into some of these deaths.

For context, Pulse Sports created a list of top five Kenyan athletes who tragically lost their lives in their prime. This list documents in brief their accomplishments and how they passed away. Obviously, the journalist was not writing an investigative piece, just collecting available facts out there and putting them together. But as one continues reading this list a pattern begins to emerge. These athletes were dying so young in mysterious circumstances.

David Lelei, who is the oldest on this list, passed away in 2010 at age 39 following a road accident. All the others on the list are below 26. Kiptum was only 25, the same age the beloved 2008 Beijing Olympics marathon champion Samuel Wanjiru was when he allegedly fell off his balcony to his death in 2011.

Nicholas Bett, the 2015 World Championship gold medallist in the 400m hurdles and Agness Tirop, who won the senior women’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 2015, were both 26 when they met their untimely deaths. Bett passed away following a road accident and Tirop was found in her house with multiple stab wounds in the neck and abdomen.

In all these stories there was no evidence to prove foul play. Even in the Samuel Wanjiru case, the court found that there was not enough evidence to entertain his mother’s claim of foul play. Agness Tirop’s killing on the other hand was seen as a domestic violence case based on the testimony given in court by her sister.

Indeed, there might be nothing sinister about all these deaths. Nonetheless, it is the duty of a journalist, an investigative one at that, to play the devil’s advocate especially where there seems to be an emerging pattern. We call it investigative reporting because everything seems normal at first, until it is not.

The sports world may glitter and shine, but beneath the surface, there is a looming shadow if these deaths are anything to go by. As journalists, we must be willing to venture into those shadows, to confront that darkness, and demand answers. It will not be easy, and it may ruffle some feathers, but it is our duty – to the athletes, to their families, and to the integrity of the sports we love.

What we hope to inspire from this piece is that sports journalists should begin having a healthy sense of scepticism when approaching stories involving a road accident or any sudden death of an elite athlete.

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