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By Chris Lotsbom, Race Results Weekly
LONDON (12-Aug) — On the final day of competition here at the 2012 Olympics, Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich earned the East African nation their first Olympic gold medal in forty years by capturing the men’s marathon today in 2:08:01. Kiprotich’s gold medal is the second in Uganda’s Olympic history, the only other being John Akii-Bua’s 1972 400 meter hurdles win. Finishing in front of Kenyans Abel Kirui and Wilson Kipsang, Kiprotich was filled with emotion after his win.
“It means a lot to me,” said Kiprotich, whose medal was the only one for Uganda at these Games in any sport. “Being unknown, now I’m known. I’m happy now that I am a known athlete!”
Despite vastly different weather conditions, the men’s marathon started similar to the women’s a week ago, with Americans making their presence felt at the beginning of the race. Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman, like Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher in the women’s contest, took turns at the front of the large lead pack through the opening kilometers before the East African contingent of athletes took over the pacing duties. The weather was warm and sunny, but the pace was honest.
Notably missing from the lead pack at 10 kilometers was Ryan Hall, the American who finished tenth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Fifteen seconds behind the leaders, Hall was suffering from a right hamstring injury that eventually forced the 29-year-old from California to drop out in the 17th kilometer.
“It was my right hamstring,” Hall told IAAF interviewers. ”I do not know if it was tendonitis or something like that. It got progressively tighter as the race went on. I do not want to turn it into a serious injury. I have never had a DNF [did not finish] in a race before. Not finishing a race is not an option unless you are running the risk of damaging your future.”
Moments after Hall stepped off the road, teammate Abdi Abdirahman did the same, suffering too from a leg injury.
“It was the hardest thing to do,” said the four-time Olympian. “At the same time I didn’t want to push hard and I didn’t want to take the risk because of the pain I was feeling in my leg. The best thing was to shut it down and drop out.
At the front of the race, Kenya’s Kipsang had jumped out to a generous lead, separating from a chase pack of seven. With a gap of sixteen seconds back to the group, which included compatriot Kirui and Uganda’s Kiprotich, Kipsang reached halfway in 1:03:15, on pace to challenge the late Samuel Wanjiru’s Olympic record. Running without any sign of strain, it looked as if the 30-year-old may bring home Kenya’s second consecutive gold medal in the event.
But things suddenly changed when Kipsang’s rhythm was interrupted at the 22 kilometer fluid station. After running a stride past Kenya’s table, Kipsang momentarily stopped, turned around, then grabbed his purple bottle and continued on.
“Very much,” Kipsang told Race Results Weekly, shaking his head when asked if the mishap impacted his race. “When I stopped and come back to pick up my water, then to catch up the pace, because I would have gone a further distance [in the lead].”
Maintaining his lead for the next five kilometers, Kipsang was then overtaken as Kirui came up on his left shoulder and Kiprotich on his right.
“That [the water bottle mistake] gave the opportunity to the guys to close. I was having a really rough time to catch back up [to the original pace],” said a visibly dejected Kipsang.
The three would run together until there were five kilometers remaining. That was when Kiprotich, who had lost a few steps to the Kenyan duo, rounded a corner and injected a burst of new-found speed. Unable to respond, Kirui and Kipsang watched as the Ugandan took off, his lead extending with each minute that passed.
“He was the better athlete today and that’s why he won,” Kipsang said plainly.
After a quick glance back, Kiprotich began celebrating, pointing to his country’s name on his vest and raising a number one finger to the television camera in the final kilometer. Rounding the Victoria Memorial then coming down the final straight to the grand finish on the Mall, Kipsang grabbed a black, yellow, and red Ugandan flag, holding it high as he broke the tape in 2:08:01.
“When I crossed the line, that’s when I believe it. Now I believe it,” said Kiprotich, who sat draped in the same flag at the post-race press conference.
Finishing 26 seconds later was Kirui in 2:08:27, followed by Kipsang in 2:09:37. All eyes were on Kiprotich, though, who after bending down to kiss the ground, celebrated with the fans lining street.
Kiprotich noted in his press conference that he didn’t give himself much of a chance to win before the race, but once he was in the lead pack with three miles to go, he told himself to ‘go.’
“What I was thinking before I started the race, I was thinking maybe Kenya would win, Ethiopia would win,” he said, digressing into what being the second gold medalist in Ugandan history means for his country. “I’ve won this medal for my people, my family, my coaches, my managers, everybody in Uganda and Kenya (where he trains). I am happy.”
Finishing after Kipsang was the American Keflezighi, who came from seventeenth place at halfway to cross the line fourth in 2:11:06, climbing into the top four only in the final two kilometers.
“Coach [Bob] Larsen shouted out sixth place at one point with 5-k to go, and then fifth place, and I saw [Marilson] Gomes dos Santos with a mile to go,” explained Keflezighi, wearing a white ice vest to cool his body temperature down post-race. “I said I want to make sure to secure that fourth place.”
Keflezighi told reporters his training prior to the marathon didn’t go all that well, only having four weeks over 100 miles, with his longest tempo run having been 12 miles.
“I told coach ‘If I could have two more weeks then I could run 2:07 or faster’” he said. “Thanks to my wife, everyday it was breathing, eating, and sleeping about running.”
Of note, Emmanuel Mutai, the third member of Kenya’s team, finished a distant seventeenth in 2:14:49, nearly seven minutes behind the winner Kiprotich and more than ten minutes off his personal best. Guor Marial, the South Sudan refugee who competed under the Independent Olympic Athlete title finished 47th in 2:19:32. The men’s Olympic Marathon medal ceremony will be part of tonight’s closing ceremonies, which bring the Games of the XXX Olympiad to a close.
PHOTO: Stephen Kiprotich gives thanks after winning the 2012 Olympic Marathon title in London (Photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
(c) 2012 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved, used with permission