If Stephen Kiprotich had boasted in 2011 that he’d win the world’s top two marathon prizes in the next two years, it’s unlikely that anyone would’ve believed him. He wouldn’t have believed in the possibility himself just a few years earlier, after a budding running career was seemingly ended before it really took off. But, fittingly for a marathon runner, the Ugandan persevered and shocked the distance-running world with his Olympic triumph.
Stephen Kiprotich had an interest in distance running from a young age but almost didn’t get the chance to follow in the footsteps of the local runners he admired. The seventh child of subsistence farmers near the Kenyan border, he came down with an illness at age 9 that baffled doctors and kept him out of school for about three years. By age 13, in 2002, he’d recovered sufficiently to run the 10,000 meters for Kapchorwa Secondary School, although, understandably, he wasn’t yet strong enough to win. The lack of success led him to give up running completely, to focus on his education.
… Then Health
Kiprotich began running again in 2005, when he was 16, which soon led to another abrupt turn. He finished fifth in Uganda’s Cross Country Championships in 2006, qualifying him for the World Cross Country Championships, where he took 24th in the junior race. The experience was enough to rekindle the fire that his illness and the long road to recovery hadn’t quite snuffed out. Later in 2006, Kiprotich left Sebei College to train full time.
His renewed dedication to distance running resulted in steady, but hardly dramatic, improvements. Kiprotich was second in Uganda’s junior Cross Country Championship in 2007 and took 19th in World Cross Country Championships junior race. He began training in Kenya, due to a lack of facilities in Uganda, eventually working with 5000-meter World champion Eliud Kipchoge. Kiprotich also trained in Belgium, where he posted a 5000-meter time that qualified him for the World Championships in Osaka at age 18. He didn’t reach the final, but was clearly making progress.
Kiprotich’s worldwide training continued in the Netherlands the following year, but 2008’s results didn’t appear to match the potential he’d shown the previous year. He failed to qualify for the Olympics and had to settle for a fifth-place finish in the 10,000 meters at the World Junior Championships. The following year was little better, as Kiprotich fell short of qualifying for the Berlin World Championships. In 2010 he ran a variety of events – from 3000 meters to cross-country to steeplechase and 10,000 meters – taking sixth in the 10,000 at the African Senior Championships.
Beginning the Marathon
Kiprotich’s pivotal season, 2011, began with encouraging cross-country results as he finished second in the Ugandan Championships and sixth in the senior race at the World Cross Country Championships. He made his marathon debut in the Netherlands in April and stunned observers by winning the Enschede Marathon in a Ugandan record 2:07:20. It wasn’t the last time Kiprotich would surprise the experts.
Now focusing on the marathon, Kiprotich was a solid ninth at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu. He took third in a strong field in the 2012 Tokyo Marathon, which only proved to be a warm-up for the year’s premier event, the Olympics. In London, Kiprotich ran behind the favored Kenyan runners – with whom he had trained – early in the race but caught the leaders by the 30-kilometer mark. With 7 km left, Kiprotich plus Kenyans Abel Kirui and Wilson Kipsang were well ahead of the pack. Within the next 2 km, Kipsang dropped back – he eventually finished third – while Kiprotich surged to the front. A surprised Kirui couldn’t respond and Kiprotich won the race in 2:08:01. It was Uganda’s first Olympic gold medal since 1972, when John Akii-Bua won the 400-meter hurdles.
“Before the race I thought a Kenyan or Ethiopian would win,” Kiprotich said afterwards. “I didn’t believe it could be me. But I kept in touch and, when it came to 3 miles to go, I just decided to go.”
Kiprotich’s 2013 highlights included a victory in the Granollers Half Marathon and a sixth-place finish in the London Marathon, prior to the World Championships. In Moscow, Kiprotich again trailed in the early stages, by as much as 10 seconds, but didn’t remain behind for long. He caught the lead group in the first half of the race and stayed there until, as in London, three men remained in contention. This time, Kiprotich faced a pair of Ethiopians – Lelisa Desisa and Tadese Tola – but the results were the same as in the Olympics, as Kiprotich had more energy in the final 2 km and won in 2:09:51.
- Height: 5 feet 8 inches
- Weight: 123 pounds
- Birth date: February 27, 1989
- Hometown: Kapchorwa District, Uganda
- Personal best: 2:07:20 (marathon); 27:58.03 (10,000 meters); 13:23.70 (5000 meters)