Two names have dominated Ugandan athletics over the past four years as the east African nation continues to make great inroads into the international distance-running scene.
But Uganda’s best hopes of winning a gold medal at the 2015 IAAF World Cross Country Championships do not rest with Moses Kipsiro or Stephen Kiprotich. Instead, their leading prospect could be 18-year-old Joshua Cheptegei.
The confident yet humble world junior 10,000m champion is hoping to build on his victory earlier this summer in Eugene by adding the junior world cross-country title to the growing list of major titles won by Ugandan athletes.
After following in the footsteps of 2004 world junior 10,000m champion and fellow Ugandan Boniface Kiprop, Cheptegei is aiming to better his compatriot’s achievements of two silvers and a bronze medal at the World Cross by taking victory in the Chinese city of Guiyang on 28 March.
“My aim is to win the world cross-country gold medal in the junior category,” said Cheptegei. “Then maybe I will look forward to focusing on the World Championships.”
Cheptegei hails from Kapchorwa, the same area where Olympic marathon champion Kiprotich lives, and already he is showing signs that he could emulate his countryman after a breakthrough season in which he clocked a PB of 27:56.26 for 10,000m and won the world university cross-country title on home soil in Entebbe.
“It meant a lot to me and it means that I can bring a world junior medal with me as I progress through my career.” he said. “When I am 25 or 26, I will have the confidence that I can go and beat the world in the long distance.”
Winning another global title in Guiyang would be the perfect preparation for another trip to China later in the year for the IAAF World Championships in Beijing.
“Winning in China would give me an impression for what to expect as a senior,” he said. “I know it will be difficult and I will need to focus a lot, but if I was able to become a champion at both the World Juniors and the World Cross Country Championships, then I would go to the World Championships next year high in confidence. It really would inspire me and Uganda.”
Should he make it on to the podium in Guiyang, Cheptegei will ensure that he won’t be the only one to benefit from such success.
After his triumph in Eugene, he set up his own foundation to help bolster the talent identification and development of runners in Uganda, with a particular focus on helping those who cannot support themselves. He hopes to continue helping the athletes with every success he gains in his career, so that he can grow the project on a bigger scale.
A medal of any colour in Guiyang would get Uganda back on track after their streak of making it on to the World Cross medals table was brought to a halt in 2013.
After the senior men’s team won bronze in Mombasa at the 2007 World Cross Country Championships, it kick-started a run of medals on five consecutive occasions, before narrowly missing out in Bydgoszcz in 2013 when Kipsiro and Timothy Toroitich finished fourth and fifth respectively.
During that seven-year period, Uganda won nine medals as they established themselves as arguably the third most consistent cross-country nation in the world.
Kipsiro leads the way
Kipsiro failed to finish the senior men’s race in 2007, but went on to win a bronze medal at the World Championships later that summer before finishing fourth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He gained redemption at the World Cross too, taking silver in 2009 and bronze in 2010, and then went on to win the 5000m and 10,000m double at the Commonwealth Games.
After retaining his 10,000m title in Glasgow this summer, Kipsiro has switched his focus back to cross country. “The competition is very important,” he said. “We are always proud to run for Uganda and give our best. Cross country is special because you have a mix of runners from all disciplines competing together.
“I am happy with the medals (I have already won), but you know I go into races to win. I also know that I make the people in Uganda happy with these medals so that makes me feel good.”
Back when he won his silver medal in 2009, Kipsiro was one of the few world-class male athletes in Uganda. That is no longer the case and should he head to Guiyang for his 11th appearance at the World Cross, he will lead arguably the country’s strongest squad ever.
Cheptegei is one of a number of up-and-coming talents who are either looking for their first big performance on the international scene or hoping to build on previous milestones, including the likes of Thomas Ayeko, Phillip Kipyeko and Timothy Toroitich, a recent winner at the Cross Internacional de Soria.
But with the increased standard comes a raised level of hope and expectation for the country that borders distance-running superpower Kenya. In spite of Kiprotich’s absence as he prepares for the defence of his world title in Bejing next year, the team will head to Guiyang knowing they stand a great chance of gaining silverware.
Despite his Commonwealth Games success, Kipsiro’s 2014 season was filled with inconsistency and injury problems, which only makes him appreciate his win to a greater extent.
“It has helped me to believe that I can still compete,” he said. “I have had a few problems with the body and even in Glasgow I felt some pain. But God helped me and is looking after me.”
Now looking ahead to 2015, the 28-year-old is hoping to add further medals to his resume and is keen to improve on his last performance at the Bird’s Nest Stadium, when he finished fourth at the 2008 Olympics.
“2015 will be a good year for me,” he said. “I am happy to be going back to China and I hope that this time I can take a medal.”
Alex Mills for the IAAF