The top of the world. That mythical, connotative, and literal place only ever occupied by a select few. At this particular moment though, Joshua Cheptegei is one of its inhabitants after his performance at the NN Valencia World Record Day on 7th October 2020.
Kenenisa Bekele must be at least, fed up of the sight of Cheptegei. After dominating long-distance running for nearly two decades, Bekele would have been confident in the knowledge that his records, bamboozling in their own right, would be nigh on impossible to surmount.
Yet, here we are, in the strange year 2020, witnessing the increasingly incredible Cheptegei break the Ethiopian icon’s hallowed records consecutively. Within the last two months alone, Cheptegei has broken not one, but two World Records, both set by Bekele, one in the 5000 meters and the other in the 10,000 meters, each of which had stood for at least a decade and a half.
Ask any sports analyst worth their salt in Uganda and they’ll tell you that the death of major sporting success for the Pearl of Africa is simply due to lack of government socio-economic investment. Otherwise, the talent is there, and in abundant quantities too.
Yet, as long as sports isn’t given the priority it deserves, much of this talent remains untapped and the potential unrealised. Nevertheless, there have been quite a few sportsmen and sportswomen whose exploits on the global stage saw the Ugandan flag raised sky-high.
Many of these have come from athletics such as John Akii Bua, Dorcus Inzikuru, Moses Kipsiro, Stephen Kiprotich, and the newest kid on the block, the precocious Jacob Kiplimo. With the exception of Kiplimo who still has his whole career ahead of him, the others are legends of the track whose peak, at least sporting wise is historical.
Joshua Cheptegei has broken not one, but two World Records set by Kenenisa Bekele
I hold nothing but the highest respect for Akii Bua, Kamoga, Inzikuru, Kipsiro, and Kiprotich, while also holding an opinion that Cheptegei has not just already surpassed them all, but is now widening the gap between him and them.
Akii Bua shocked the world when he ran under 48 seconds to win gold in the 400m hurdles at the 1972 Munich Olympics, setting a new world record, and winning his country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in the process.
Uganda’s second Olympic victory would come 40 years later, when Kiprotich’s 2012 marathon gold in London sent even more shock waves across the world, and was quite naively, and widely thought of as a fluke. These thoughts were masterfully vanquished barely a year later when he won another gold at the 2013 World Athletics Championships in Moscow.
Kamoga upset the odds monumentally in winning a bronze medal in the 200 meters at the 1996 Olympic games in Atalanta, Italy, before following it up with Silver at the World Championships in Greece the next year to silence anyone who might have doubted him.
Inzikuru stole fans’ hearts in Helsinki back in 2005, with her victory in the 3000 meters steeplechase which made her the first, and to-date only Ugandan woman to win gold at a World Championship. She also won gold at the Commonwealth Games the year after before her career fizzled out after a succession of unfortunate injuries, and non-sporting problems.
Kipsiro promised so much, and delivered on most of it, conquering the Commonwealth Games in 2010 where he became the first man in 70 years to scoop both the 5000 meters and 10,000 meters in New Delhi, India.
He then defended his 10,000 meters gold in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2014 and won a bronze at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, but ultimately did not win an Olympic medal.
His closest attempt ended up being his fourth-placed finish in the Beijing 2008 games, a feat he replicated at the next year’s World Championships in Berlin, Germany. It was these near misses that came to define him, quite unfairly in my opinion, as an unfulfilled talent.
Both Kipsiro and Inzikuru had a bright future ahead of them but were hit with bad luck and a string of injuries.
It is said that Uganda as a country barely appreciates it’s heroes because all the achievements above deserve more plaudits than they receive. The question isn’t whether or not Cheptegei is an all-time great, but rather how he compares against those that attained greatness before him.
Uganda has to do better for its athletes if wants to be part of the big leagues
A person vouching for either Akii Bua or Kiprotich can rightly point out that the two, unlike Cheptegei, or any other Ugandan athlete for that matter possess the single most prestigious accolade in athletics; an Olympic Gold medal. It is that accolade that elevates them above the others.
The Tokyo Olympics, postponed by a year to 2021 will most likely change this though. With the form Cheptegei is showcasing right now, barring horrendous injury or any of the unforeseen certainties of life, he will definitely have an Olympic gold around his neck by the time he completes his laps in Japan.
It’s not cocky patriotism inspiring this confidence. It is the objective realisation that there is absolutely nobody in either the 5,000 or 10,000 meters categories with the capacity to challenge Cheptegei now. He has already tested the Diamond League, World Championships and Commonwealth Games glory, in addition to World Record times in the 5km and 15km Road Races. An Olympic gold would immortalise him, and strengthen his case as the greatest Ugandan athlete of all time.
Long-distance running, particularly in the Olympic sense, is a story of cyclical dominance. Mo Farah reigned supreme over the last ten years or so. Bekele did so before him, and he’s compatriot Haile Gebrselassie did the same thing before him. It is now time for Cheptegei.
The difference between Cheptegei and the other Ugandan legends is his consistency. Right from his days as a junior athlete, he has been head and shoulders above his peers. There can be no accusations, no matter how uninformed, of being a flash in the pan. He didn’t come out of anywhere.
Before the rest of the world sat up to take notice, he was a junior world champion, his gold at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, USA, in 2014 attests. To be able to participate there, he had won the Golden Spike Race in the Netherlands. Before that, he had emerged victorious at the 2014 World University Cross Country Championships. This isn’t the story of a surprising late bloomer.
An underdog rising above expectations. This is the story of a man whose ascent has been planned and deliberate. Plenty of credit for this can go to his coach, Addy Ruiter, as well as the NN Running team, but without Cheptegei’s enormous talent, all their brilliant work would be in vain.
Another major advantage that the star athlete has above all the other legendary names is his mental fortitude. Right now, he is top of the world but barely three years ago, he was rock bottom after finishing 30th at the senior men’s 10km race at the world cross country championship, held at Kololo in Kampala.
Having started the race in effervescent fashion, he eventually suffered a sudden attack of lactic acidosis. To his dismay, ridicule and derision from his countrymen on social media became rampant. Yet, those that judged him could not walk, let alone run a mile, or a meter for that matter in his shoes.
He chose not to bury his face in shame, hiding from that dark memory but rather, has faced it and used it as motivation to become the champion he is today. The fact that he was able to recover so spectacularly from such a setback, which might have demoralised and derailed the career of a less focused athlete. It is more than ample evidence of the steely single-mindedness he possesses to be one of the very best, not just for his country, but in track history as well.
With Cheptegei intent on conquering the world’s icons, I’m afraid his compatriots don’t stand a chance either.
Author: Timothy Ainebyoona
Timothy is a dynamic analyst passionate about news and all things sport.