The suit he wore off the plane looked as though it was a hand-me-down from the 6’5″ (205lbs) Usain Bolt. Such had been the dire state of affairs in the Team Uganda camp before and during the 2012 Olympic games that eventual marathon winner, Stephen Kiprotich, (5’6″, 123lbs) couldn’t afford a suit that fit. Nonetheless, there were flowers, ministers, a bouquet of flowers, and a throng of ululating supporters to welcome Uganda’s newly minted hero.
Thus far so wonderful.
What isn’t so wonderful is that the gaga crowds, including the Minister of Sports, Charles Bakkabulindi, who turned out at the airport to greet Kiprotich this morning, hadn’t taken any trouble to help him or any other athlete materially or otherwise before the London 2012 Olympic games. If it hadn’t been for British Airways which offered up free tickets, the entire team would likely not have made it out of their decrepit training facilities.
In fact, the major story to come out of Uganda’s preparations for London 2012 was how neglected the athletes had been and how sports officials allocated themselves obscene per diems for their stay in London while the athletes themselves had to do with a pittance. Ganzi Mugula, the 32-year-old who captained Team Uganda had no chance of getting out of the qualifying rounds (and he knew it before he got on the plane) because he, too, had never had any support from his government. Yes, Mugula was already too old to be considered to swim for Uganda, and it was a disservice that he was made captain at a time when he was clearly over the hill, but none of that was his fault.
Such was the disgraceful disregard for Uganda’s runners and boxers – we had no representation at anything else other than swimming – that until he was 7km from the finishing line, hardly any Ugandan had ever heard of Kiprotich. Then he broke free and put daylight between himself and the chasing pack. Suddenly, the Ugandans watching sat up and paid attention.
Wilson who? Kipro-what? Oh, no, you mean Kipsiro and that one went out yesterday. No, this is really a Ugandan called Kiprotich. Ah, that one is Kenyan. … Until Wilson (correction, Stephen) Kiprotich picked up the Ugandan flag, 150 meters from the finishing line, you can bet money that not even the Minister of Sports could have picked him out of a line-up.
It is of course to be celebrated that Uganda has finally won a gold medal at the Olympics – 40 years after the last one was won. It is also exciting that corporate entities in Uganda have already gotten together and raised $100,000 as a thank you largesse for Kiprotich, with a promise to make it $500,000.
But it also paints a painful picture that Kiprotich won despite the lack of support from Uganda at large. The president of Uganda posed with the athletes before they jetted out and then he went back to the stuff that interests him most; meeting with the Lake Basin leaders to sort out the area’s poisonous politics. That’s as far as his support for sports tend to be: posing for pictures with athletes.
Kiprotich is 23. If he gets the type of support – and the $500,000 promised would be a good start if it is not, like most such money in Uganda, stolen before he gets it – he truly needs, one can hope that he will win again in future international races. But the real point is that Uganda’s sportsmen and women need concerted support from their government as well as corporations on a scale we are now seeing being showered on Kiprotich.
The president has offered $80,000, and others are falling over themselves to hand over wads of cash. Money seems to no longer be a problem for Ugandans celebrating Kiprotich, now that he has won gold. Rather perplexingly, word has it that he will also be promoted to some juicy rank in the prisons service where he is employed.
One must thus end this on a hopeful note – that the help, support and mentoring will come for Kiprotich and other professional sportsmen and women well into 2016 and beyond. The omens have not looked good for Ugandan professional sports in at least 20 years, but Kiprotich might finally have burst the bubble of indifference, neglect and lip service.
We watch, we pray.
*** Correction to article made and name changed to Stephen. The winner’s name is Stephen Kiprotich, not Wilson Kiprotich. ***