12 AUG 2012 General News London, UK

Kiprotich strikes historic gold

Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda celebrates as he approaches the line to win gold in the Men's Marathon the London 2012 Olympic Games at The Mall on August 12, 2012 (Getty Images)Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda celebrates as he approaches the line to win gold in the Men's Marathon the London 2012 Olympic Games at The Mall on August 12, 2012 (Getty Images) © Copyright
He looks like a Kenyan, he sounds like a Kenyan, he runs like a Kenyan, and he trains in Kenya, with Kenyans. But Stephen Kiprotich is taking the Olympic Marathon gold medal back to Uganda.

In only his fourth Marathon since he entered Enschede, Netherlands, as a pacemaker in May last year, and carried on to win in 2:07:20, Kiprotich has upstaged his more famous training colleagues, and become Uganda’s second Olympic athletics champion, after the celebrated John Aki-Bua 40 years ago.

It is a little known curiosity that Akii-Bua once ran the famous Italian cross-country race, Cinque Mulini (Five Mills). He finished last. Since then, among others, Moses Kipsiro has made Ugandan distance running more than respectable, with his Commonwealth distance double, but now Kiprotich has really put the central African country on the marathon map.

But to do that, he had to make the momentous decision half a dozen years ago to leave his home, his family and his country, at the age of 17, to go and train in neighbouring Kenya. A mysterious illness had interrupted his embryonic athletics career and schooling in his mid-teens, but after concentrating on his education when he got better, he tentatively began running again; so well that he was selected for the World Junior Cross 2006, in Fukuoka (another famous Marathon location), where he finished 24th.

"I wouldn’t say that I performed badly because it was my first appearance in an international race," he told our colleague Sande Bashaija. "I returned to school and added more effort in training." It was after that he decided his future was in serious athletics. He quit school, and realising that he needed top class training partners, soon left to go to the Mecca of altitude training, in Eldoret, Kenya.

At his victory press conference, he made an appeal to Ugandan officialdom to invest more in facilities for athletes to stay at home and train. "Uganda, compared to Kenya, there are so many factors. I would send this message to the athletics federation and the Minister of Sports in Uganda, to consider our athletes in Uganda, to give us some facilities, the problem out there is we don’t have facilities, even in my home area, there is no facility, they have been promising us a facility. That problem pushed me to Kenya.

"I spend most of my time in Kenya, for training, the only time I go back home is to feed my family, then I go back to Kenya. So that’s my message, we need facilities".

Kiprotich, now 23, was born in Kapchorwa, 300 kilometres north-east of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, near Mount Elgon and Kenyan border. He is the second youngest of seven children, with three brothers and three sisters; but he is the only one who practices sport.

He now trains in Kaptagat, near Eldoret, with a strong group of Kenyan internationals, including London 2011 winner, Emmanuel Mutai. The group is directed by former Olympic silver medal steeplechaser, Patrick Sang. According to Kiprotich’s manager, Jos Hermens, "Patrick told me that Stephen was very strong recently, and that he has been beating all of his partners in training; but we never expected that he could win."

After establishing himself in Kenya, Kiprotich became a regular member of Ugandan international teams, with variable results, best of which were a sixth in both the African Championships 10,000m in 2010, and in the World Cross 2011. Then three months after his Marathon debut in the Netherlands, he finished ninth in the World Championships marathon in Daegu. He improved on that with a third in the Tokyo Marathon in January this year. But it was hardly a record which heralded an Olympic gold.

Yet in winning in 2:08:01, he had to dispose of two of the Kenyan favourites, double world champion Abel Kirui, who finished second, and a man who has run 2:03:42, and won the London Marathon this year, Wilson Kipsang, who held on for the bronze. Having been dropped 30 metres by the Kenyan pair at around 35k, Kiprotich gathered his forces, and literally shot past his rivals two kilometres later. "He passed us like a cheetah," said Kirui. The result was in little doubt after that. Kiprotich went away to win by close to 30 seconds.

"The weather was hot and humid," said Kiprotich, "but if affected everyone the same. Where we train in Kenya, there is sometimes quite a lot of rain, and I was expecting that here, but it was quite different. In the end, it’s determination that counts.

"At the start, I didn’t believe I could win the race, but when it came to three miles to go, I just said to myself, let’s go. When I arrived at the finish I didn’t believe it myself. Now I believe it."

Pat Butcher for the IAAF

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