Meb Keflezighi finishes as the top American in fourth place.
Since its first running in 1896, the modern Olympic marathon has always been a race full of surprises. On Sunday, along the twisting, narrow streets of London, that surprise came by way of Ugandan Stephen Kiprotich.
The relatively overlooked 23-year-old won the gold medal, crossing the finish line in front of Buckingham Palace in 2 hours, 8 minutes, and 1second.
It was the first Olympic marathon medal for Kiprotich’s country. The last Ugandan to win Olympic gold was 400-meter hurdler John Akii-Bua in 1972.
“I came here to get a medal,” the Ugangan said, flashing a broad smile shortly after he won the race. “I did it for my people.”
Kenya took the silver and the bronze medals, as two-time world champion Abel Kirui ran 2:08:27 for second and Wilson Kipsang finished in third, running 2:09:27
Kiprotich’s victory was hardly easy. He had battled with Kenyan pre-race favorites Kirui and Kispang for the second half of the race.
The first half of the race was led by Brazil’s Franck de Almeida, who made the first move early in the 26.2-mile race. He was reeled in by Kipsang, however, who then did the heavy lifting until Kirui and Kiprotich joined him after the half-marathon point.
The trio ran stride for stride for several miles and at first it looked like Kiprotich was going to settle for bronze as he sat behind Kirui and Kipsang, who chatted with one another.
Everything changed near the 23-mile mark, however, when the Ugandan took off on a slight uphill curve with a sudden injection of pace. Surprisingly, the Kenyans didn’t counter and from then on it was all Kiprotich. In the final 5K, he ramped up the pace, putting out repeat sub-5-minute miles. He smiled and occasionally pointed at spectators. As Kiprotich neared the finish line, he grabbed the brightly colored Ugandan flag and draped himself in it.
Kiprotich’s personal best in the marathon is just 2:07:20 — nearly a full three full minutes slower than Kipsang’s.
Noticeably missing from the front mix were marathoners from Ethiopia. The nation that is home to the former world-record holder, Haile Gebrselassie, didn’t have any runners cross the finish line on Sunday.
Getu Feleke, Dino Sefir, and Ayele Abshero all dropped out of the race.
It was also a tough day for the majority of Team USA out on London’s warm. The lone bright spot was Meb Kefleizghi, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist, who surged hard over the final 5 kilometers to finish fourth. Keflezighi’s finishing time was 2:11:06.
“Fourth is not the place I wanted to finish,” Keflezighi said afterwards. ”But fourth in the world, I’ll take it. I’m very proud of myself.”
The other two Americans in the race, Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman, didn’t fare so well. Hall, the American record holder in the half marathon and fatest U.S. marathoner of all-time, pulled off the course near the 11-mile mark. Abdirahman stopped shortly afterward, citing a leg injury.
“It was my right hamstring,” Hall told reporters. “I don’t know if it is tendinitis or something up high in the connection. But it was nothing that was that serious in training…I’ve never DNF’d a race before, so this is a first for me. Not finishing a race is not an option unless I think I’m going to do serious damage to my career. Those last couple of miles I’m weighing in my head, ‘do I sit out here and could I have run 26 miles and finish in 3 hours or something.’ But my stride was getting worse and worse. … This wasn’t something I could work through.”