16 October 2012

Uganda: Where Is Olympic Gold Medalist Kiprotich?

He won't be taking part in the Amsterdam Marathon on 21 October and neither will he be at the prestigious New York Marathon on 4 November. Instead, Uganda's golden boy and current Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich has decided to stay in his home village on Mount Elgon.

Twenty-three-year-old Stephen won gold this year in the Olympic Marathon in London. A medal Uganda had been waiting for 40 years. He became a national hero overnight; overwhelming welcome at Kampala International Airport, breakfast with the Ugandan president and financial rewards amounting to almost a hundred thousand US dollars (around 76,000 euros). But two months after his surprising victory, his fans, especially in Western countries, are beginning to wonder where he is and why he is not competing in the upcoming major marathons in Berlin, Amsterdam or New York.

"I am doing very well," says Stephen when I called him to ask for an interview. "Tomorrow I will travel to my home village, by public transport. Can we travel together?" I am stunned that Stephen, who could by now easily afford a good car, still uses the uncomfortable Ugandan public transport. At the end of the conversation, we settle on my twenty-year-old Toyota to cover the 300-kilometre journey from Kampala to Mount Elgon.

The prison

At seven 'o clock the following morning, I arrive at Luzira, Uganda's largest prison complex where Stephen has been working for several years as a warden. "Things have changed here," he says with a big smile as we take breakfast - tea and bread smeared with margarine. "After winning the marathon I was promoted seven ranks."

Since then, he has also left his old warden home and moved into a nice house in the middle of the Luzira complex. Prison staffs affectionately call it the 'painted house.' It is actually one of the few buildings that doesn't look dilapidated in Luzira, home to some 30,000 prisoners.

Prison staff at the main gate salutes their hero as we drive off. We take the car for a quick check-up at the petrol station and again the mechanics instantly recognize Stephen. Within minutes a small crowd gathers around us. They all want to have their photos taken with him.

He doesn't mind and takes time to speak to everybody. "I guess that is what happens when you write history," he says. A few kilometres into our road trip, we get stopped. A speed ticket for over speeding is immediately withdrawn by the policeman after realizing who my co-driver was. "Sorry sir. And please drive carefully with our champion," he tells me.

Finally, we reach Kapchorwa, Stephen's hometown. My old Toyota rattles as we drive up the dirt track to his house on the slopes of Mount Elgon. "Now I feel I am coming home," he says with almost a sense of pride. Only now I realise fully how training in such high altitude could be a major factor in building Stephen's endurance as a long distance runner.

The burning question

As we sit down in his matoke (banana) plantation, I finally feel comfortable enough to ask him the burning question: "Why are you here, enjoying family life at home while you could be making tens of thousands of dollars winning marathons overseas?"

He laughs. "Of course, everybody wants to know that," he replies. "It is simple: I am not ready for it. It is only two months ago since I won in London. Recovering from a marathon takes time, you know. I got so occupied after London that I didn't have enough time to train."

"I can participate now, and just be a fun runner. I don't want that. But don't worry. Soon I will discuss with my manager in which marathon I will run early next year."

Driving down the mountain, I wave goodbye to a happy Stephen, next to his wonderful wife and two children. I also feel happy and inspired because this is someone who, despite the overnight fame has remained himself, knows his priorities and is not necessarily chasing big and easy money.

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