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Uganda offers hero's welcome to gold medal winner Kiprotich

Olympic marathon winner Stephen Kiprotich cried tears of joy as hundreds turned out to welcome him home with his country's first gold medal in 40 years.

Uganda's Olympic gold medal winner Stephen Kiprotich is mobbed by wellwishers on his return to the country.
Uganda's Olympic gold medal winner Stephen Kiprotich is mobbed by wellwishers on his return to the country.

KAMPALA, UGANDA // An unknown before the Games, the marathon gold medallist is now pride of his nation

Uganda's only medal winner at the London Olympics cried tears of joy as hundreds of people welcomed him home yesterday with celebrations of music and dance in honour of the African nation's first gold since the 1972 games in Munich.

Stephen Kiprotich's victory in the men's marathon race also was Uganda's first medal of any kind since the Atlanta Olympics 16 years ago and was deeply felt by the nation.

Politicians want to declare him a national hero and Ugandans are hailing him as a role model for their children.

His boss in the prison service has promised to promote him at work and US$100,000 (Dh367,200) has been collected in a fund-raising campaign whose goal is to collect $500,000 for the runner's benefit.

Unknown to most Ugandans before he won in London, the 23 year old returned home a star and was ushered in through the VIP lounge of the Entebbe International Airport and shadowed by politicians.

The athlete was saluted by a guard of honour mounted by prison officials, the kind of treatment usually reserved for the head of state. Within hours of arriving he was whisked away for a "state breakfast" with Uganda's president.

Those who came to honour Kiprotich at the airport in central Uganda say he deserves all the attention he is getting for beating the odds to win a medal that has galvanised national pride.

Kiprotich's elderly father and mother, as well as scores of villagers from his tribe, were there to greet him.

"His win has united Ugandans," said David Satya, who is from the same village as Kiprotich. "He is a humble man who had humble beginnings. His parents are poor, as you can see, but he kept on fighting and today we are cheering his perseverance."

Joseph Byabasaija, Kiprotich's boss at the Uganda Prisons Service, said the athlete wept when he saw the crowd that had gathered to meet him.

"He cried tears," Byabasaija said. "I am too proud of him. He has been training very hard for the last five years."

Kiprotich, who is married with two young children, worked as a prison warder, juggling his duties as a jailer with athletics. His closest relatives live deep in eastern Uganda, and those who know him well say his success came against all odds.

He had not been expected to beat the well-known Kenyans, who in the end settled for silver and bronze. A few metres from the finishing line, having suddenly accelerated his pace to leave the Kenyans behind, he spotted a man in the crowd holding Uganda's flag, which he grabbed and carried to the finish.

Ugandan officials say they are still debating the best way to reward Kiprotich, whose win comes at a time when the East African country is celebrating 50 years of independence from the British, the reason some see Kiprotich's victory as timely for Golden Jubilee celebrations.

Uganda's parliament will today hold a special session in honour of the athlete, and parliamentarian Odonga Otto said he would bring a motion seeking to have the athlete declared a national hero.

* Associated Press