How toxic social media obstructs athletes

World Marathon Champion Eliud Kipchoge at the Kaptagat Training Camp in Uasin Gishu during Globe Traktion TV show Interview with Persil Telewa. [Stanley Mbichu, Standard]

Minutes to midnight on February 11, the tragic news that a road accident had killed marathon world record holder Kelvin Kiptum and his coach Gervais Hakizimana broke.

Millions of fans in Kenya and across the world were in disbelief. Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s most decorated marathoner who will be eyeing a third consecutive title at the 2024 Paris Olympics, took to social media to mourn the 24-year-old star.

“I am deeply saddened by the tragic passing of marathon world record holder and rising star Kelvin Kiptum. An athlete who had a whole life ahead of him to achieve incredible greatness,” Kipchoge posted on X just hours after the tragedy.

But what followed were social media trolls directed at the two-time Olympic champion.

The accident reignited similar online allegations that Kipchoge had not congratulated Kiptum after breaking his (Kipchoge’s) world record in Chicago in October, setting the new mark at 2:00:35.

Last week, during the naming of the final marathon team to fly Kenya’s flag at the Paris Olympics in August, Kipchoge told the media: “It is you who will expose us to the world. If you negatively expose us, then you are not patriots.”

And yesterday, sports experts based in Iten, the country’s most preferred training destination, weighed in on the impact of unprecedented social media attacks on the performance of sportsmen and women.

Iten-based Kinesiologist Byron Kipchumba said Kiptum’s death derailed Kipchoge’s training ahead of the Tokyo Marathon.

“Social media has no boundaries and respect. He was mentally tortured and that really affects mental health, which is crucial in sport, meaning performance declined,” Kipchumba told The Standard.

“The (social media) attacks raised public anger against Kipchoge. In such a scenario, the personal safety of an athlete becomes a concern.”

According to Viola Maru, a clinical psychologist at the Iten County Referral Hospital, social media attacks against top athletes hit their families even harder.

Maru says social media abuses cause an athlete to be unsettled and constantly in distress. “You start losing sleep and that affects your training sessions,” says Maru.

“You lose friends as soon as social media begins. Friends start doubting you and the isolation worsens the stress.

“The athlete starts getting anxiety attacks, which include the heart beating faster than normal and in some cases experiencing loss of breath.”