Following his heroic strides to the Olympic marathon gold medal in 2012 in London, Stephen Kiprotich will certainly be the centre of world attraction and main medal hopeful for the country at this year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, writes JAMES SSEKANDI.
There is no doubt that the pressure and burden of Uganda’s Olympic medal hopes will be heavily felt on Stephen Kiprotich’s shoulders in the run-up to and during the Olympic Games due later this year in Rio, Brazil.
Although his form has not been as outstanding in the last two seasons, Kiprotich hopes to recover in time and defend the medal he won in 2012.
“Of course my target is winning it [gold] again! So, I’m stepping up my training to 30km [from 20km] daily,” Kiprotich told The Observer this week.
But as a precautionary measure to avoid a burnout, Kiprotich has set his pre-Olympics programme with an aim of competing in a limited number of events.
“I will be running in few marathon meets this year ahead of the Olympics. I know with enough training, God will guide me to deliver,” said an upbeat Kiptrotich, who stunned the world in London fours ago when he became only the second Ugandan athlete to win an Olympic gold.
It is worth noting that at 26 years old, Kiprotich is approaching a crucial stage of his career where he must perform consistently. However, Kiprotich’s below-par performances in recent events have raised concerns going into Rio.
For instance, he failed to defend the 15th IAAF World championships gold in Beijing, China last August. He finished in a disappointing sixth position (2:14:43) in a race won by Eritrea’s 19-year-old Ghirmay Ghebreslassie.
Kiprotich had triumphed during the 2013 edition of the championships in Moscow, Russia, to become only the first athlete in history to hold both the Olympic and World marathon titles in the same period.
On a positive note, the Olympic champion set a new personal best of 2:06:033 during the 2015 Tokyo marathon. This reflected an improvement of 30 seconds from his previous marathon personal best. His new mark beats both winning times in London (2:08:1) and Moscow (2:09:51), which lends credence to the fact that the champion is on the right recovery path and could spark again in Rio come July.
Away from Kiprotich, the athletics fraternity should keep tabs on Solomon Mutai, who salvaged the country’s pride by winning a bronze (the only medal) at the World Championships in Beijing last year. Going into the championships, Mutai was one of the little-knowns on Team Uganda, but he raced to bronze in a personal best time of 2:10:42.
The Bukwo-born athlete had only made his international debut in March 2014 at the IAAF World Half Marathon in Copenhagen, Denmark, and went on to compete at the Commonwealth games in Glasgow, Scotland, in August that year. In Copenhagen, he helped Team Uganda to a respectable fifth position finish while in Glasgow he narrowly missed out on a podium finish as he came fourth.
Based on his aforementioned progression, Mutai certainly makes a good bet on Uganda’s Olympic medal prospects in Brazil. Understandably, Mutai, who was largely selected on the team as a pacesetter for Kiprotich, has grown in confidence.
“If a chance comes in Rio, I will take it because medals are awarded to individuals despite the fact that marathon is a team race,” he says.
Other names to watch out for include veterans Moses Kipsiro and Jackson Kiprop. Kipsiro, a former Commonwealth champion, showed tremendous recovery from injuries and has progressed well after switching from 5,000 to 10,000 metres.
For instance, he put up an outstanding show in the Airtel Delhi Half marathon last October. He completed the 21km race in a new personal best of one hour and 41 seconds. His previous personal best was 1:02:18.
On a personal front, he seems to have mentally recovered from the troubles of the infamous sex scandal in which he was the main accuser of disgraced former national team coach Peter Wemali. Being level-headed now should be a positive step forward in Kipsiro’s attempt to qualify and prepare for the Olympic finals.
Dominic Otuchet, the president of Uganda Athletics Federation (UAF), is optimistic many athletes will qualify in time and allow the federation to start preps.
“Athletes need to push themselves to hit the mark at the first qualification opportunity, thus set up a strong camping field as early as possible,” he says.
Uganda Olympic Committee (UOC) president William Blick has promised to support athletes in their preparations for Rio only after they have qualified.
With former World and Commonwealth champion Dorcus Inzikuru fading out and Winnie Nanyondo and Adero Nyakisi plagued by injuries, Otuchet said the federation will rely on some of the best-performing youth female runners in recent international events.
The prospects include Janat Chemusto and Peruth Chemutai, two bronze and two silver medal winners in 1,500m and 3,000m respectively, at the Youth Commonwealth Games in Samoa.