Uganda was left with well-weighted mixed feelings after pre-race favourites Joshua Cheptegei and Jacob Kiplimo took silver and bronze medals from the men’s 10000m final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on Friday.
Many are still wondering how the cream melted. Some pundits, commentators and bookmakers can’t believe Ethiopian Selemon Barega grabbed the gold ahead of the Ugandan aces in a slow time of 27 minutes and 43.22 seconds.
That is a snippet of how Uganda’s glass is half-empty rather not half-full. In history, no Ugandan has ever gone into an Olympic event as a favourite for gold.
So for Cheptegei and Kiplimo to run onto the Tokyo National Stadium’s maroon track already pitted for victory, they were meant to deliver but their smiles as they held the national flag after the race must have been cosmetic. Even the hugs they gave a delighted Barega must have been piercing. Deep down, the duo will feel they didn’t achieve anything.
The 10000m world record holder and champion Cheptegei could actually be seen telling Kiplimo, who prior had not lost a race on track since 2018, that something had not gone right.
On the evening with unbearable humidity levels and temperature above 30 degrees Celsius in Tokyo, the Ugandan team had already planned to sacrifice the third man Stephen Kissa to break down the field early. When Abdallah Mande had the same role two years ago in the 25-lap final at the Doha World Championships in Qatar, it paid off and Cheptegei won the gold.
In Tokyo, the foes didn’t fall for the trick. Kissa took the lead immediately, went far on solo a run but the other 24 men did not join him. The field was not interested in it for the first 2km.
“It was a sacrifice for the team. We had a plan for me to go ahead to make it a fast race,” Kissa told journalists in Tokyo.
“I thought they (Cheptegei and Kiplimo) were going to follow me but when I looked around, they were not there. But I’m happy – we have two medals.”
For the third kilometre, the targeted Ethiopians Barega, world silver medallist Yomif Kejelcha and junior bronze medallist Berihu Aregawi were stuck behind, so was Cheptegei and Kiplimo.
But, Kenyan Rhonex Kipruto started to gear in on Kissa, who has about 60m ahead. Sensing the tactics were melting under the stadium lights, Cheptegei moved to the middle of the pack at 2,800m. Another 400m later, Kiplimo and Cheptegei came ahead of the pack as Barega and Kipruto closed in on Kissa.
“He should have taken control of the race and done it the hard way,” said Raphael Kasaija, one of Cheptegei’s earlier coaches. “Cheptegei and Kiplimo should have ditched the notes and taken control early.”
The field began to shape up after the 5000m mark. Kenyan Weldon Langat briefly joined Kissa ahead after the 6km mark in 16:58.83, a sense that the race was going to be slow. Cheptegei moved to third place and when Kissa dropped off after 16 laps, Kipruto took over
Kissa must have walked off the track with a fair share of disappointment but back on track, Cheptegei moved to second with seven laps to go, Kiplimo fourth, Kejelcha fifth and Barega seventh.
Cheptegei took the lead with five laps left, just like in Doha. But the drama unfolded with three laps left when Canadian Mohammed Ahmed charged ahead.
And, owing to the slow pace, Cheptegei found himself sandwiched at the front by Barega, Ahmed and Kejelcha. On the bell, the three men and Aregawi surged past Cheptegei. Here, a thrusting Kiplimo reached him to chase the quartet and whereas the Ugandan pair kicked superbly in the final, they just couldn’t beat Barega to the finish line.