Eight years on, Kiprotich’s London gold still as iconic

Thursday October 01 2020

Legacy Sealed. Kiprotich bows to the weight of his achievement soon after crossing the purple tape in London on August 12, 2012. PHOTO| AFP

By Allan Darren Kyeyune

Olympics are known as the pinnacle of world sport. And owing to their magnitude, every athlete yearns to take part.  So to win a medal elevates one’s stature. Uganda boast of seven Olympic medals since its debut at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia.
For the current population, Uganda’s latest medal at the Games - Stephen Kiprotich’s marathon gold at the London Games in 2012 - is still a fresh memory.
 Four-decade wait
It has been eight years since then a 23-year-old Kiprotich stunned the world to scoop the competition’s last medal on offer in a time of two hours, eight minutes and one second on Sunday, August 12, 2012.
This was Uganda’s second Olympic gold in history, exactly 40 years since legendary John Akii-Bua’s heroics over the 400m hurdles at the 1972 Munich Games.
“It means a lot, a lot, since 1972, we have never won a gold medal,” a pretty delighted Kiprotich would say in the post-race interview. “I am very happy. I have won a medal for me, for my country, for my family, for everybody in Uganda and the world. Now I say, I can die a champion, I cannot die a useless man. I am now an important person in my country.”  No lie from Kiprotich. By far in Uganda’s sport, he is the G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time) especially after he claimed the world marathon title a year later in Moscow, Russia.
 Only Joshua Cheptegei can beat the grade if he expectedly wins the 10000m gold at next year’s Tokyo Olympics in Japan.
 For now, that momentous feat by Kiprotich is top. “A historic performance,” says Jurrie van der Velden. The Dutchman is Kiprotich’s manager, a relationship built since 2006.
 Race plan with Sang
Kiprotich had had a mediocre career on track and only a year before London, he debuted as a pacemaker but went on to win the Enschede Marathon with a national record of 2:07:20 in the Netherlands.  “His coach Patrick Sang and I had a philosophy that he would come as a pacesetter and then go on to finish with a good time. Obviously, we couldn’t tell him that at the time. So Patrick trained him on that basis,” Jurrie recalls. “We had a similar strategy for London.”
 By London, Kiprotich had run just three marathons. “He had little experience but the necessary one to do well. We knew from training that he was in a 2:05-hour kind of shape. We knew that good things were possible as long as he wouldn’t allow the nerves of the race to come into the body and mess up his mind.” On the day before the race, Jurrie customarily went through the race plan again with Kenyan Sang (now Eliud Kipchoge’s coach) and Kiprotich in the Games’ Village for athletes.  “We prepared the bottles for the race. Benjamin Kiplagat was there, and obviously, we cracked some jokes and had fun.”
The saviour, vantage point
Then came race day, also the last Games’ day. By then, Uganda, who had sent 15 participants in four disciplines of swimming, badminton, athletics and weightlifting were staring at another fruitless trip at their colonial master’s land.
 The East African country had not tasted any Olympic delight since Davis Kamoga won 400m bronze behind American Michael Johnson and Great Britain’s Roger Black at the 1996 Atlanta Games in USA.
 And most Ugandans did not care much about the marathon that day. In London, the few accredited Ugandan journalists were also skeptical and could have only turned up to cover Kiprotich just for the sake.
 “It was a glorious Sunday morning with perfect weather,” recalls former Daily Monitor Sports Editor Mark Namanya. “I remember we camped at Tower Bridge. There was a good vantage viewing point for us and press facilities.”  “I will be honest, I wasn’t exactly hoping for a medal. I thought Kiprotich would best finish in the top five,” added Namanya.
Kiprotich was up against a strong 105-man field comprising red-hot Kenyan trio of Wilson Kipsang, Emmanuel Mutai and two-time world champion Abel Kirui plus then Dubai Marathon champion Ethiopian Ayele Abshero.
“Nobody was paying attention to Kiprotich. The idea was: ‘Stephen, you are a dark horse. You are capable of running 2:05, no else knows,’” Jurrie said.
The group was set to tussle it out on a course that captured iconic areas of London like Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral.
Tight hamstring
“I remember Kiprotich was very cheerful as ever, full of confidence and he was happy to rock and roll and to make it work,” Jurrie recalls at the starting line.  “It (course) was with twisting curves, corners, tough course, a bit up and down. And the strategy was: ‘you are a cross-country runner, finished sixth at World Cross-country and this is a type that suits you.’”
 Uganda Athletics Federation president Dominic Outchet and team physio Michael Aleku had been at the starting point and later finish-line.
 Then coaches Gordon Ahimbisibwe and Faustino Kiwa together with Kiprotich’s local manager the late Godfrey Nuwagaba manned the three crucial water points.
 When the race began, Brazillian Franck de Almeida was the early leader after 10km before Kipsang upped the pace through the 17th kilometre. Kiprotich was among the pack of eight following.
 “Kipsang pushed very early and burnt out which gave Kiprotich and Kirui a chance to catch him to run together for a couple of miles before taking off,” recalls Jurrie.
 Kiprotich had struggled towards the half-way mark. “And some stage, he fell back with a tight hamstring and if you watch the footage, he was punching his muscle a couple of times where he lost contact with Kipsang and Kirui.”
Grabbing flag to purple tape
The pain later went away and Kiprotich would catch up and pushed with them. “I think it was a masterpiece of running by Kiprotich to drop back first and it was the decisive move because it broke Kipsang.”
 By the 32km stage, the trio of Kipsang, Kiru and Kiprotich was isolated at the front before the latter peeled away with 5km left.
 He turned around the Victoria Memorial solo before grabbing the Ugandan flag from Otuchet and Aleku with 20 metres left to, finishing in style, later kneeling and bowing to the weight of his achievement.
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“He had kept passing there so he had already noticed the flag,” Otuchet memoirs. By then, many Ugandans had been gripped on television to catch the scintillating yet historic moment.
 “When I grabbed the flag, I knew no one would cross me again. Even if I walked, I knew I would still win. So I wanted to celebrate, cross the line with my flag to show that everyone in my country watching.” added Kiprotich.
 It was a long evening for highlighted by him receiving the medal and Uganda’s anthem playing for the first time in four decades at the Games’ closing ceremony.
 “And I remember, everyone wanted to have a piece of him. I remember President Yoweri Museveni called him, he was hosted by the Ugandan Ambassador, Ugandans in North and South London,” Namanya recalls. 
 “Those from East London gave him money. It was also a proud moment for me as a Ugandan journalist asking a Ugandan gold medallist questions in the post-race press conference,” he added. Kiprotich is now 32 and has accumulated 19 races under his belt. That medal opened doors for marathon running in the country and four championship medals have been won since.