One of the biggest shocks of the 2012 London Games was saved for last with Stephen Kiprotich’s commanding triumph in the men’s Marathon today.
Breaking away from Kenyans Abel Kirui and Wilson Kipsang just before the 23-mile marker, the Ugandan ran on to a 2:08:01 victory to secure only the second-ever Olympic gold medal for the east African nation. The first came with John Akii-Bua’s 400m Hurdles win in Munich forty years ago.
"I can say I am very happy to win a medal for my country," said the 23-year-old who was contesting his fourth Marathon. "I love my people. Uganda are very happy because we haven't won a medal in marathon races."
Conditions were not kind to the marathoners as the highest temperatures of these Games – 23 C. and sunny at the start and 25 C. at the finish - saved themselves for the final day. Kiprotich decided to save himself too, choosing to hang back from the early race leaders before charging home over the last three miles, the last of which was akin to a victory lap.
"The pace was too fast and I knew I could not run away from them so I just had to keep up with them," he said, referring to Kirui and Kipsang. "I tried to settle and then I had to break away because I wanted to win this medal."
Sub-2:05 man and solid favourite Kipsang, whose kit also read Kiprotich, tried to hatch a breakaway plan of his own as he surged to the front in the 12th kilometre. A quick 14:11 split between kilometres 10 and 15 by broke much of the chase pack and gave his a 15 second lead. Even after the race, Kipsang had no regrets for his early moves.
""It was right for me to push because of the other athletes in the competition," he said. "If the pace had been slower we could have had a problem at the end, so I knew I had to push."
At the midway point (1:03:15), Kipsang was 16 seconds ahead of Kirui, Ethiopians Getu Feleke and Ayele Abshero, South African Stephen Mokoka and Kiprotich. But then his lead began to dwindle.
At 25 kilometers Kirui, Kiprotich and Abshero had narrowed their deficit to seven seconds and just under two kilometres later, Kirui found himself running shoulder to shoulder with this teammate as Kiprotich followed closely in their wake.
With 1:46 on the clock, the Ugandan showed some signs of distress. Patting his left hamstring several times as he ran, he dropped a few steps behind the Kenyan pair and appeared to be out of the running for gold. But then came the ambush.
Rounding a corner less than a dozen steps from the 23-mile marker, Kiprotich sprinted to the front, looking relaxed and fully in control. Kirui and Kipsang simply couldn’t respond as the Ugandan began to gradually add to his lead.
The move transformed Kiprotich into a picture of confidence. At 40 kilometres (2:01:12), 20 seconds ahead of Kirui, he was smiling, acknowledging and waving to the crowd. For much of his final saunter on the long straight from Buckingham Palace to the finish line, he was running with an unfurled Ugandan flag. The broad smile he exuded as he approached and crossed the line was contagious.
His time was 41 seconds shy of the 2:07:20 national record he set last year in Enschede, The Netherlands, but that mattered little to the unexpected Olympic champion.
"Now I am 'known'," he said, "so I am happy I am now a known athlete."
Kirui reached the line 26 seconds later in 2:08:27 to claim the silver.
"Actually, when me and Kipsang were together, I thought we were the only ones who would fight for the gold," Kirui, the 2009 and 2011 World champion, said. "I thought I was going to sprint with Kipsang in the final kilometres. Suprisingly, I saw Stephen with us and it was difficult to make a move. He stayed with us for a long time and he made a stronger move in the end. We were closing the gap but couldn't catch him. I am happy for him."
Kipsang, the winner of April’s London Marathon, took third on this visit to the British capital, ten seconds behind his teammate. He had nothing but kind words to share for winner.
"To my friend, Stephen, 'Congratulations'. It was he who won today because in each competition it is the best one that day who wins."
While tens of thousands lined the course to watch them compete this morning, Kiprotich, Kirui and Kipsang will receive their medals before an even larger audience tonight – in front of 80,000 at Olympic Stadium during tonight’s Closing Ceremony which is expected to attract a world-wide audience of one to four billion people.
The trio that formed the first Olympic continental sweep since European runners took the medals in 1984 was well ahead of the rest of the pack.
2004 silver medallist Meb Keflezighi, as far back as 17th at 20 kilometres, ran a strong second half to produce the lone bright spot for the U.S. squad. Working his way to sixth at 35 kilometres and fifth with less than two kilometres to go, he finally passed Brazil’s Marilson dos Santos over the final kilometre to finish fourth in 2:11:06.
Dos Santos, who was running among the top-eight since 15 the kilometre mark, was next in 2:11:10. Japan’s Kentaro Nakamoto, 20th at midway, made up a lot of ground as well to finish sixth, six seconds behind Dos Santos.
Rounding out the top-ten were Cuthbert Nyasango (2:12:08) of Zimbabwe, Brazil’s Paulo Roberto Paula (2:12.17), Pole Henryk Szost (2:12:28) and Ruggero Pertile (2:12:45) of Italy.
Third Kenyan Emmanuel Mutai was well back, finishing 17th in 2:14:49 while the top Briton, Lee Merrien, was 30th in 2:17:00.
It was a not a good day for Ethiopia as none managed to reach the finish. Abshero, this year’s world leader, raced near the front through 35 kilometers but didn't reach the 40th.
And finally, the 51st minute was not kind to Keflezighi’s teammates. With 51:52 on the clock, U.S. No. 1 Ryan Hall dropped out, seconds before teammate Abdi Abdirahman followed suit.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF