LONDON (17-Apr) -- On his last trip here Uganda's Stephen Kiprotich struck gold.
Just 23, and running in only his fourth marathon, he ran a beautifully executed race in the Olympic Games and won the first athletics gold medal for Uganda in 40 years, and that nation's only medal in any sport at the 2012 Games. He immediately became a national hero in the East African nation of 35 million people.
"It means a lot to me," Kiprotich told reporters after his victory. "Being unknown, now I'm known. I'm happy now that I am a known athlete!"
Kiprotich is indeed "known," but has yet to be tested in a truly fast marathon, like Sunday's Virgin London Marathon, where the pacemakers will take the men's lead pack through half-way in a blistering 1:01:45. Race organizers have assembled a sensational field, including reigning World Marathon Majors champion Geoffrey Mutai (2:03:02 PB), world record holder Patrick Makau (2:03:38), reigning Bank of America Chicago Marathon champion Tsegaye Kebede (2:04:38), London Marathon course record holder Emmanuel Mutai (2:04:40), and reigning London champion Wilson Kipsang (2:03:42). All are from Kenya except for Kebede who is Ethiopian.
"We are very proudly calling it the greatest marathon field ever," race director Hugh Brasher told reporters here today.
Kiprotich, with his career best of 2:07:20, is only ranked tenth on time in this field, and is by far the slowest of any of the true contenders for victory. He also lacks strong track credentials, with a modest 10,000m personal best of 27:58.03.
Nonetheless, the Nike-sponsored athlete and his coach, Patrick Sang, believe that Kiprotich will do well here and isn't feeling too much pressure. He doesn't turn 24 until tomorrow.
"I'm very happy to come and compete in this marathon," Kiprotich told reporters today in a boyish voice. "I don't have any pressure for me. I just feel proud. In the competition everything is possible. I always believe everything is possible."
Surely, that belief helped him to victory here last August, but so has a three-year partnership with Sang, who won silver medals in the steeplechase at the 1992 Olympics and 1991 and 1993 World Championships. He began working with Kiprotich in 2009 when the Ugandan's Dutch management firm, Global Sports Communications, brought several Ugandan athletes to Sang's training camp in Kaptagat, Kenya. Sang was impressed, although he quickly saw that Kiprotich had no future on the track.
"As a coach, first of all you need to have the talent to work with," Sang told Race Results Weekly in an interview. "So, when I met him I realized he had the talent. Then, I realized that he also had the ability to listen and follow instructions. So, it was only a matter of time for him to achieve better results from when I met him."
In 2011, Sang and Kiprotich faced an unusual training challenge. Kiprotich was selected to compete in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, but had also been contracted to be a pacemaker at the Enschede Marathon in the Netherlands one month later. Sang had to fashion workouts for Kiprotich which would make him strong running on hills of grass and dirt, but also smooth and fast for long runs on pavement. Sang was impressed with how Kiprotich handled the workouts and maintained his focus.
"He's a hard worker," said Sang. "He follows instructions, and willing to learn. And, over time we have seen the progress, especially 2011 when we were doing trying to kill two birds with one stone, where he was selected to run for the country in the World Cross, and at the same time prepare for a debut in the marathon. The way he could handle the information and how to balance, that's when I realized he could go places."
At World Cross Country, Kiprotich finished an excellent sixth (just behind Geoffrey Mutai), and in Enschede he made a more surprising surprising result. He felt so good after finishing his pacing duties through 30 kilometers, he decided to continue and won the race. His time of 2:07:20 was both a course and Ugandan record and remains his personal best. He also finished ninth at the 2011 World Championships marathon and third in Tokyo in 2012 (2:07:50).
That Kiprotich developed into an Olympic champion was all the more surprising because in his childhood he had a lengthy illness which for three years in his mid-teens left him feeble and unable to play with other children, let alone compete seriously in sports. He said today that although the condition eventually cleared up, he never received a definitive diagnosis of what he had.
"Sometimes I was sick for a long time... not playing, not running," he said. He continued: "It was a type of sickness that I did not understand. It was very sad for me."
For Sang, Kiprotich's victory at the London Olympics was a source of great pride, but he was disappointed that he wasn't actually at the race.
"Unfortunately, I was not there," said Sang, choking up just a little. "I was watching on television, live. It was really special for me. First of all, the way he presented himself towards the end, taking the flag for 50 to 100 meters, taking the national flag. It showed, first of all, besides just winning, he knew he had to do something for the country and the sport."
Sang has taken some heat for being a Kenyan who coached a Ugandan Olympic champion, similar to American Alberto Salazar's coaching Britain's double Olympic champion Mo Farah. But Sang, who also coaches Emmanuel Mutai and former world 5000m champion Eliud Kipchoge, defended himself.
"There was a big debate about why these guys come there," Sang said. "To me, it's like going to a classroom. Any student is given the opportunity to learn, but the one who uses the opportunity is the one that succeeds. You can dispense knowledge, but the one who is the consumer of knowledge will determine if he will be successful or not."
PHOTO: 2012 Olympic Marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich before the 2013 Virgin London Marathon (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)