Cheptegei still stands, Kiplimo rises

Kiplimo is now marching his promise. PHOTO/COURTSEY 

What you need to know:

First in the 10000m final, Cheptegei chiselled through the nine-man field and held on to defeat Kenyans Daniel Ebenyo, Kibiwott Kandie and Edward Zakayo to win in a Games’ record time of 27:09.19 on August 2.

Athletics in Uganda is enjoying happy times. And the nation can’t take that for granted.

In a year that demanded even more in the aftermath of the best Olympics show ever after the Tokyo 2020 Games in Japan, Uganda reaped big at both the Oregon World Athletics Championships in Eugene, USA and the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in England.

The sweet summer yielded three medals on the US west coast with Joshua Cheptegei respectfully defending his 10000m world title.

A fortnight or later, Uganda still won three gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, summing up arguably the best summer story of athletics ever for the country.

Nakaayi’s heroic indoors feat

The incredible pieces of the colourful picture began much earlier though, in March to be exact.

When World Athletics postponed the World Cross-country Championships in Bathurst, Australia by a year, it meant all focus at the start of the year would fall on the indoor season.

Middle-distance runners Nakaayi and Winnie Nanyondo took it seriously, both qualifying for the 18th World Indoor Championships staged in Serbian capital Belgrade.

While Nanyondo agonizingly finished fourth in the 1500m final behind Ethiopian trio of Gudaf Tsegay, Axumawit Embaye and Hirut Meshesha, Nakaayi got one better.

Running the 800m final, she won Uganda’s first-ever global medal indoors by scooping bronze after posting two minutes and 66 micro-seconds behind American Ajee Wilson and Ethiopian Freweyni Hailu at the Stark Arena.

The hope was that the duo could keep the candle burning towards Oregon and Birmingham.

Respect to Cheptegei

Uganda presented two defending champions for the first time in history at the Worlds, in Oregon.

Cheptegei was up for the title defence over the 25-lap so was Nakaayi for the two-lap dance both having triumphed at the Doha Worlds in Qatar three years ago.

On July 17, Cheptegei ran arguably his best tactical race to beat 23 other men and retain his title in a time of 27:27.43 at the Hayward Field.

At the Tokyo Olympics in July, 2021, Cheptegei messed up tactically and handed the title to Ethiopian rival Selemon Barega. In Eugene, there were no errors. 

He controlled the race from gun to tape, with his counterparts Stephen Kissa and Kiplimo offering the necessary support which decimated the entire Ethiopian brigade of Barega, Berihu Aregawi and Tadese Worku.

Kenyan Stanley Mburu, one of Cheptegei’s former training partners, claimed the silver medal while Kiplimo secured a sweet bronze, to add to the same piece of silverware from the Japanese capital.

Clap for Chelimo, Orogot

The victory further cemented Cheptegei’s legacy as the country’s best but when he offered to race in 5000m final on July 24, he suffered a hamstring problem which curtailed his progress, thereby finishing ninth as Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen wheeled away.

Uganda still savoured delighted with Kiplimo’s half-brother Oscar Chelimo surging from eighth place to scoop bronze thanks to a final lap of 55.14 seconds.

The East African nation finished with three medals, its biggest tally at any edition of the Worlds. And of course, it could have been more.

Alabama-based sprinter Tarsis Orogot gave a good account of his Worlds’ debut by finishing 13th overall over the 200m, after taking fifth place with 20.35 seconds in the semi-final Heat 2, a slot away from a lucrative final.

And that was a massive improvement for a man who, almost a year prior, had finished fourth in the 200m final at Kasarani Stadium during the World U20 Championships in Nairobi, Kenya.

So to finish ahead of the likes of Americans Noah Lyles and Kenny Bednarek in Oregon, huge credit must be given to his coach Blaine Wiley at the University of Alabama. Wiley modelled 100m world champion American Fred Kerley.

Orogot, who was the country’s first male sprinter at the Worlds since Davis Kamoga won 400m silver at the Athens 1997 edition, had lowered his own national record to 20.32 seconds via the NCAA Finals in June.

Rules’ breach, bacterial infection

Nakaayi meanwhile fell to a World Athletics’ rules breach after she was paired with Olympic champion American Athing Mu for two successive 800m Heats.

The rule book indicates that athletes who have met in the initial Heats cannot meet again in the next round unless it’s a final, at least according Rule 20.3.

Nakaayi stopped in the semis, following a box-in by Great Britain’s Alexandra Bell after about 300m. She had struggled to overcome such instances throughout the season.

Stella Chesang, returning from maternity, missed her connecting flight to Eugene and arrived without her luggage, just 24 hours to her 10000m race.

Then, Olympic steeplechase champion Peruth Chemutai failed to overcome a bacterial infection in time and painfully took 11th place in the seven-and-a-half-lap water-jump race final. The title went to Kenyan-born Kazakhstani Norah Jeruto.

Golden Kiplangat  

Only five days separated the Oregon show from the Birmingham Games. Some athletes like Nakaayi and Nanyondo secured late UK visas via the Netherlands, Orogot couldn’t get his in time and subsequently missed being part of Uganda’s entire contingent.

The Birmingham stage is where marathoner Victor Kiplangat announced his grand arrival. On Day One of athletics on July 30, he set the ball rolling by scooping Uganda’s first of five medals in style.

He ran a controlled race and upon taking the lead shortly after the 25km point, Kiplangat never looked back.

The 23-year-old raced solo and at one point even took a wrong turn but eventually reached the 42km tape at Victoria Square in Birmingham City in a winning time of two hours, 10 minutes and 55 seconds.

President Yoweri Museveni in October gifted Kiplangat a brand-new Renault Koleos and a Shs50m token for that feat.

Kiplimo’s show

The next few days would belong to Kiplangat’s brother Kiplimo. With Cheptegei ruling out his participation due to injury, Kiplimo, who had departed Eugene early, came to Birmingham as the track star.

He perfectly emulated Cheptegei’s 2018 achievement as well as Moses Kipsiro’s 2010 display by scooping the 5000m and 10000m gold medals at the Alexander Stadium.

First in the 10000m final, he chiselled through the nine-man field and held on to defeat Kenyans Daniel Ebenyo, Kibiwott Kandie and Edward Zakayo to win in a Games’ record time of 27:09.19 on August 2.

Four days later, Kiplimo was back at Alexander and the task was equally harder. Facing fresher Kenyan opponents in Nicholas Kipkorir and Jacob Krop who had won silver behind Ingebrigtsen in Eugene, Kiplimo worked tirelessly and breezed past the pair in the home stretch to win the gold in 13:08.08.

And that made nine different championship medals for the lad since he started out in the junior ranks back in 2016. Kiplimo, who holds the half-marathon world record, just turned 22 in November.

Sorry Chemutai, Chesang

The night before, Chemutai had walked off the blue tartan in pain after she had fallen off the barrier in the 3000m steeplechase final. Chasing leader Kenyan Jackline Chepkoech, Chemutai fell down with 600m to go while she was in second place.

Chepkoech raced to gold but Chemutai limped and hung on, taking the bronze medal in 9:23.24 after England’s Elizabeth Bird had seized the moment to get the silver.

On the same day that Kiplimo sealed his Commonwealth double, Prisca Chesang worked to get a 5000m bronze medal at the Estadio Olímpico Pascual Guerrero in Cali, Colombia during the World U20 Championships.

She posted a time of 15:31.17 behind the Ethiopian pairing of Medina Eisa and Melknat Wudu, for Uganda’s only medal in South America. Chesang emulated her feat she achieved at the same championship in Nairobi last year.

Like Chesang, Racheal Zena Chebet had saved Uganda’s blushes at the Africa Senior Athletics Championships in Mauritius back in June by bagging a 10000m silver medal.

It is also worth mentioning that Nakaayi broke the 800m indoor national record (NR) twice, Chesang broke the 10km and 21km NRs during her renaissance.

And so did Kissa over the marathon, becoming the first Ugandan to run the 42km distance under two hours and five minutes when he came second at the Hamburg Marathon with 2:04:48 on April 24.