The Olympic marathon, the athletic finale to London’s summer of fun, was expected to be an East African affair. That is how it is and that is how it turned out except the winner came not from the distance powerhouses of Kenya and Ethiopia, instead it was an unheralded Ugandan with a 100-watt smile, Stephen Kiprotich, who produced a rousing acceleration over the closing mile to claim his country’s first gold in 40 years.
Kiprotich had left Kampala unknown to nearly all, apart from the country’s small track and field community, friends and family from Kapchorwa province in the country’s far east and the inmates of the prison where he earned his living as a warder. This time he departed for London as his country’s most famous sportsman.
“I get recognised in my country – everyone knows about my story now,” says the quietly-spoken Kiprotich. “I’m a famous guy.” A disbelieving smile still accompanies discussions of his new-found fame.
When he arrived back home with London gold hanging around his neck he was greeted by a large crowd and hurried off to breakfast with the president. Uganda had not won an Olympic medal of any colour since 1996 and their only previous gold had come from John Akii-Bua in Munich in 1972.
“Winning the Olympics changed my life in some ways – I am now in the record books as a champion in history,” he says. “Back in my country I have to remain the same as I was before. I haven’t changed as a person.”
Kiprotich is a modest man. He insists once his running career is done he will return to work as a prison warder. “That is my place of work. Running is just a short period of time – after I retire I need to go and work.”
Work for the time being remains running. His win in London came out of the blue. Abel Kirui, the Kenyan silver medallist, said after the race that he had been concentrating on compatriot Wilson Kipsang, the winner of the 2012 London marathon and the third man in the breakaway. “Then I saw Kiprotich go past me like a cheetah,” said Kirui.
Sunday will be a very different race, in part because, apart from the last six miles, the course is different but largely because the field is stronger – there are no nationality restrictions as in the Olympics. This is possibly the best marathon line-up ever assembled and, judged in terms of previous times, Kiprotich will struggle to make the podium. His best is four minutes slower than the two leading Kenyans, Patrick Makau, the world record holder, and Kipsang, and with pace makers ushering the field briskly along it will require the race of Kiprotich’s young life to finish among the first three.
Kiprotich celebrated his 24th birthday yesterday and did so in the knowledge that he is getting quicker – his only outing in 2013 was a half-marathon personal best in Granollers in Spain. “I don’t feel the pressure,” he says of the greater expectation.
Athletic challenges do not appear to faze him. Place them in the context of his story and it should not come as any great surprise. Kiprotich is the youngest of seven children who grew up beneath Mount Eldon on Uganda’s border with Kenya. His father, James, was a subsistence farmer. Life was raw and tough. As a boy Kiprotich fell seriously ill, a debilitating ailment that was never diagnosed despite repeated visits to doctors and hospitals and it was enough to keep him out of school for three years. When he returned he wanted to make up for lost time and stopped running to concentrate on his schooling. But the call of the track won in the end and at 17 he was persuaded to cross the border and train under the direction of Eliud Kipchoge, a former 5,000m world champion, in the Kenyan distance running heartland of Eldoret.
Uganda has no history of distance runners – and limited wider athletic facilities or support – and so Kiprotich still trains almost exclusively in Kenya, returning home for occasional family visits. Initially a distance runner on the track he switched to marathon running two years ago – the Olympics was only his fourth.
London occupies a special place for Kiprotich. He revelled in the support he received from the crowds that lined the Olympic marathon route, but there is another reason why he has been looking forward to coming back.
“Ahh,” he says when I introduce myself. “Robin van Persie.” Kiprotich is an Arsenal fan and, despite Van Persie’s departure, the Dutchman remains his favourite. “There are some players who bring colour when they play,” he says of Van Persie. Kiprotich, it can be said, does likewise for his sport.
“I used to play football. I love doing sport. I wanted to be a gymnast as well but then I found I was OK at running. Running has changed my life.”