LONDON – Stephen Kiprotich didn't just overcome 26.2 miles and world-class Kenyan runners to win the Olympic men's marathon on Sunday.
The 23-year-old produced an upset on the streets of London to win Uganda's first Olympic gold medal in 40 years just days after being completely written off by his nation's media.
"To say that the Ugandan team will return from the Olympic Games with a medal is similar to believing that Uganda will qualify for the 2014 (soccer) World Cup," Ugandan daily newspaper The Observer wrote. "See, both scenarios are realistically possible but executing them is anything but attainable. Kiprotich is not expected to mount any challenge in Sunday's marathon."
Other Ugandan publications were just as dismissive about Kiprotich. But with a superb run that saw him go head-to-head with two members of the world's most dominant marathon nation and then charge away with a devastating late burst, he carved out his own niche in Olympic history.
Kenya, which remarkably had 278 runners with times good enough to qualify for this marathon but was only allowed to send three, had eventual silver medalist Abel Kirui and third-place finisher Wilson Kipsang surrounding the Ugandan in a leading group of three for much of the race.
It was a situation that Ugandan running chiefs have tried to avoid by developing more emerging talent and a stronger team, but nevertheless it happened. Kiprotich was isolated. He had become, to use African running parlance, the "rabbit."
Yet this rabbit was not going to be snared in the trap and won both the mental battle and physical strain that this tortuous event always brings. Out of 105 starters, 20 could not complete the course, but Kiprotich did it in a winning time of 2:08:01.
He made a critical break with four miles left and Kirui and Kipsang, who had made an ill-advised early burst before being reeled in, had nothing left to answer. Kiprotich was well clear as he surged down The Mall, the iconic avenue in central London that leads to the Queen's residence at Buckingham Palace.
He had time to grab a flag as he moved towards the finish line. Back home, where it was early on Sunday afternoon with most of the population having just left church, Ugandans celebrated wildly.
It was Uganda's first gold since John Akii-Bua set a world record in winning the 400-meter hurdles at the 1972 Munich Olympics. And the triumph was all the sweeter because it was so unexpected.
"The press in Uganda thought he had no chance, so the public began to think the same," said Faith Okee, a Uganda fan in London. "Even when we saw him move away with the Kenyan we assumed they would run him off. We hoped for a bronze.
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"This is beyond our dreams and I have never been prouder to be Ugandan."
Perhaps it should not have been such a surprise after all. Kiprotich had pedigree to his name, having defeated running legend Haile Gebrselassie to finish third in the Tokyo Marathon earlier this year. Kiprotich is a quiet man of few words but his first comment after crossing the line was all that was needed.
"This means a lot to Uganda," he said.
Indeed it does.
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