Kiprotich ends Uganda's marathon wait for Olympic gold

By Patrick Jackson
BBC World Service

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Stephen Kiprotich (left, AFP) wears his gold medal at London 2012; John Akii-Bua (right, Getty) wears gold at Munich in 1972

Seeing Stephen Kiprotich win the Olympic men's marathon was a special moment for all Ugandans, but particularly so for the family of the late John Akii-Bua.

Kiprotich brought his country its first gold medal in 40 years, and only the second in its history.

Back in 1972, Akii-Bua triumphed at Munich in the 400m hurdles but his feat, a famous success for Africa as a whole, was soon clouded by politics and war in the Uganda of dictator Idi Amin.

Prevented by a boycott from attending the 1976 Games in Montreal, he ended up as a refugee in Kenya after Amin's downfall, and was unable to match his earlier successes in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Returning to Uganda, he became the country's track and field coach, to be honoured after his death in 1997.

Meanwhile, with few exceptions, Ugandan athletes made little impact on the Olympics - until Kiprotich and London 2012.

Flag up

"I was standing on a chair - my children thought their mummy had gone mad," Denise Akii-Bua Harris, daughter of the original gold medallist, told the BBC World Service about watching Kiprotich's victory.

"I was screaming, I was celebrating, I had our flag up, tears were running down my face; I was just so happy and proud at that moment."

Her father, she said, would have been "super-proud" of Kiprotich.

"It was a long time coming but it was worth the wait. This gold means so much for Uganda," she added.

From now on, she said, Ugandans could say they were from the country that produced Kiprotich.

It is something to tell outsiders, who would otherwise associate it with famine, poverty, corruption and disease.

"Kiprotich's 1st Olympic gold for Uganda in 40 years taught us that nations never die," wrote Nairobi journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo on Twitter. "They fall into coma or hibernate."

And Uganda is awake again.

New lessons

Amid the euphoria, it has to be said that Stephen Kiprotich did much of his training in Kenya, but Akii-Bua's daughter believes it is easier now to be an athlete in Uganda.

For one thing, media advances mean Ugandan athletes can watch events taking place all over the world on TV, following competitors, tracking times, and learning new techniques and strategies in their event.

"In the 70s there was nothing like this level of access to the global athletics scene," she explained.

Then there is the international recognition that East Africa's climate, altitude and geography are tailor-made for elite training regimes, she points out. Uganda enjoys high altitude and a climate similar to those in Kenya and should therefore be able to offer its long-distance runners the same benefits.

Where Uganda falls down, perhaps, is in a lack of sports agents who can get major sponsors behind athletes, Akii-Bua Harris added.

New faces

In a Games dominated this year by Western and Asian nations, Akii-Bua Harris believes Kiprotich's gold medal is as much a boost for Africa as it is for Uganda.

"The world tends to expect Olympic winners from countries like South Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia, and perhaps too from some of the North African countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria," she said.

"For success to come from other countries in Africa can only be good for the continent as a whole as it means that the spirit of the Olympics can make an impact on a wider audience, and can inspire more young people to aspire to this level of sporting excellence."

Late in his life, John Akii-Bua devoted much time to trying to establish an athletic legacy in Uganda so potential sporting talent could be identified at an early age and nurtured, his daughter said. "Sadly, he didn't live to realise that dream."

However, Kiprotich did not forget the man who first cleared the hurdle of Olympic glory for his country.

"I never saw him but his achievements were always in my mind," he told the International Sports Press Association. "I always wondered 'can I one day do what he did for Uganda many years ago'."

Denise Akii-Bua Harris spoke to BBC World Service's Newsday programme.

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