In just two hours, eight minutes and one second, Stephen Kiprotich sealed his place in world sports history on Sunday. He is an Olympic champion. For Uganda, the runner ended the country’s 40-year wait for an Olympic gold medal.
That he achieved the feat on the final day of the London Olympics with Uganda two months away from celebrating her 50th independence anniversary makes him special. Kiprotich became only the second Ugandan to win an Olympic medal after John Akii-Bua in Munich 1972. Move over Moses Kipsiro and Dorcus Inzikuru, at only 23, Kiprotich is now the biggest star in Ugandan sport.
Kiprotich’s journey to stardom has been troublesome. Born to James Kiptui and Cheptum Kokop of Cheptiyal village, Kapchorwa District, Kiproitich had little interest in athletics while growing up. He was only inspired by other senior runners, in particular Francis Musani, a national marathoner, to join athletics.
“I used to see Musani and other boys jogging near our home in the morning. I also picked interest,” Kiproitich said in an earlier interview. He joined Kaminy Primary School, where he met a teacher that inspired him the more. “There was a teacher called Patrick Chemonges. He was in charge of sports. He always encouraged me to run,” added Kiproitich.
Alongside his growing interest in athletics came a terrible sickness that almost ended his career prematurely. “I was in primary six when a strange sickness attacked me. They took me to all hospitals around Kapchorwa but we failed to get the right medication,” he recalled.
Seemingly resigned about the situation, Kiproitich’s parents took him home and waited for fate to dictate. “I was out of school for almost three or more years. I rejoined and sat my form seven examinations in 2001,” Kiproitich noted. In 2002, Kiproitich joined Kapchorwa Secondary School.
His health had by now fairly stabilized and he managed to represent his school at the district competitions. “I think my body was still weak because I was overlapped in the 10,000m. I eventually finished ninth but being overlapped haunted me a lot. I felt like not running any more,” he stated.
Kiproitich switched schools in 2003, joining Sebei College for his senior two. He had fallen out of love with athletics and never wanted anything to do with the sport.
“I decided to concentrate on my books,” Kiproitich stressed. Until 2005 when he completed his ordinary level education, Kiproitich never stepped on the track. “People were always castigating me for sitting on my talent but I felt I could gain a lot more from education.”
In 2006, he returned to Sebei College for his advanced level education and resumed training. He made his debut at the National Cross Country Championships where he finished 5th in the 8km junior race.
That performance earned him a ticket to the 34th World Cross Country Championships held in Fukuoka, Japan. He placed 24th in a time of 25:02. “I wouldn’t say that I performed badly because it was my first appearance in an international race. I returned to school and added more effort in training.”
Kiproitich shocked his parents and the then Sebei College headmaster Sam Cheptoris, when at the end of 2006, he told them he was quitting school to concentrate on athletics. “It was a very difficult decision because I had one year left to join university or any other higher institution of learning,” Kiproitich said after a deep thought. At first the headmaster Cheptoris couldn’t take it but has now learnt to live with Kiproitich’s decision.
“I begged him to stay and complete the one year but he refused. But it’s good he is making progress in his career,” the headmaster, now politician, said. In February 2007, he finished second to Geoffrey Kusuro in the National Cross Country 8km junior race. He made it to the World Cross held in the Mombasa, Kenya. He finished 19th (25:05) in Mombasa but was not contended with his performance. His local manager Godfrey Nuwagaba got him a training camp in Kenya and connected him to Global Sports Communication, a sports management company.
Kiproitich won his first national title on May 31, 2007 when he clocked 28:42:54 (10,000m) at Namboole. Global Sports took him to Belgium where he trained for some time and later hit the World Championships qualifying mark. He clocked 13:27.40 in 9th position at the KBC Night of Athletics in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium to land a place on the Ugandan team for the World Championships held in Osaka.
In Osaka, Kiproitich never made the final but he admits to have had an unforgettable experience. In 2008, at the FBK Games- Hengelo, Kiproitich wrote a 5,000m personal best of 13:23.70 (7th position) but failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. “I didn’t feel bad at all for missing out on Beijing. One day, my chance will come and I will compete at the Olympics,” he said after the 2008 Olympics.
He spent some months of training in Netherlands and later stamped a new personal best of 28:00.98 in 10,000m Neerpelt, Belgium on May 31. Kiproitich clocked 28:10.71 to finish fifth in 10,000m at the World Junior Championships in Poland.
Having turned senior in 2009, Kiproitich made his first attempt on the 12km National Cross Country Championships race and placed third. After one month of residential training, Kiproitich declared that; “I am ready to beat anyone and I believe it’s possible.” But at the World Cross-country Championships in Amman, Jordan, h could only finish 23rd in the 12km senior race.
He failed to qualify for the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Germany but never lost hope. He kept working hard. In April last year, he shocked many by winning the Enschede Marathon in Netherlands, coming home in 2:07.12, a course and national record.
That earned him a ticket to the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea (August 27 to September 4, 2011) from where he returned as Team Uganda’s second best performer behind steeplechaser Jacob Araptany, after finishing ninth in 2:12:57.
His most impressive performance was, however, recorded in February this year when he finished third (2:07:50) in the Tokyo Marathon. More impressively, he finished a place ahead of Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie (2:08:1). That was a warning to the biggest marathon runners.
“That performance encouraged me so much. I am now confident I can beat the world’s best,” Kiprotich said before he left for London. True to his word, Kiprotich produced a stunning running in the final 5km to outlast Kenyans Abel Kirui and Wilson Kipsang to the top prize.
The second last born of seven (four boys and three girls), Kiproitich is the only distinguished sportsman in his family. “I want to first achieve something in athletics before I can return to school,” he noted. Now he has achieved the big one and is bigger than life, will he return to school?
3000m steeplechase 8:36.2
3000m: 2007-7:48.06, 2008 – 8:01.31
5000m: 2007: 13:27.40, 2008-13:23.70
10,000m: 2006-29:19.4, 2007: 28:42.54, 2008-28:42.54, 2008: 28:00.98
2006 24th World Cross Ctry Champ s (junior)
2007 1st National Champs 10,000m
2007 19th World Cross Ctry Champs (junior)
2007 16th World Champs in Athletics
2008 12th World Cross Ctry Champ s (junior)
2008 5th World Junior Championships
2011 9th World Athletics Championships
2012 3rd Tokyo Marathon
2012 1st Olympic Games