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Stephen Kiprotich becomes Uganda’s second ever Olympic gold medallist with historic men’s marathon victory

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LONDON – Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda surged at the 23-mile mark on Sunday to win the Olympic marathon over his East African rivals from Kenya in 2 hours 8 minutes 1 second.

Kiprotich’s victory in the 26.2-mile race gave Uganda its first gold medal at the London Games and its second ever in track and field. John Akii-Bua won the 400-meter hurdles at the 1972 Munich Games.

On a hot day that had reached 72 degrees by the start, Abel Kirui of Kenya, the two-time world champion, won silver in 2:08:27. Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich of Kenya, the prerace favorite and reigning London Marathon champion, drew away at seven miles but could not hold on in the wilting heat and took bronze in 2:09:37.

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Meb Keflezighi of the United States, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist who had been bothered recently by a strained gluteus muscle, ran steadily and moved up throughout the final miles to finish fourth in 2:11:06.

Otherwise, it was a disappointing day for the Americans. Ryan Hall, who had been bothered by plantar fasciitis in his left foot and a lack of speed training in his buildup to the Olympics, dropped out at about 11 miles after his right hamstring tightened. Abdi Abdirahman also left the course, seeming to be favoring a foot.

Sunday’s finish also concluded what has been a disappointing Olympics at distant events for the Kenyans. They won the men’s 800 meters and the 3,000-meter steeplechase but collected no gold medals otherwise.

Kipsang, as he is known on the marathon circuit, had been the Olympic favorite after winning the London Marathon in April in 2:04:44, four seconds off the course record. At the 2011 Frankfurt Marathon, Kipsang posted the second-fastest time in history in 2:03:42. But Sunday was hot and humid, and Kipsang’s surge at seven miles proved to be premature.

Kenya had won its first marathon gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, when Sammy Wanjiru took off on a forceful pace from the beginning and set an Olympic record in 2:06:32. His life became troubled, though, and he died last year after a fall from a balcony at his home in circumstances that have not been resolved.

Such is the depth of Kenyan marathon running that Patrick Makau, the world-record holder in 2:03:38, did not make the Olympic team after dropping out during the London Marathon in April.

Also overlooked was Geoffrey Mutai, who in 2011 became the first runner to win New York (a course record 2:05:06) and Boston (2:03:02) in the same year. The Boston race was the fastest ever run but did not count as a record because of the course’s drop in elevation and point-to-point layout.

Even though Kenya took two of the three marathon medals on Sunday, questions will surely be asked about whether gold would have been attainable with Makau or Mutai in the race.

Kiprotich, 23, the eventual winner from Uganda, had run 2:07:50 last year to establish his international credentials. He finished sixth at the 2011 cross country championships and ninth at the 2011 world marathon championships. He has said he moved to Kenya to train because of a lack of training partners in neighboring Uganda.

After a 4:48 opening mile on Sunday, the race settled in at 2:10 pace, reaching 5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles, in 15:23, with 10 runners within two seconds of the lead. Keflezighi and Hall were tucked in just behind the front pack.

The course consisted of a 2.2-mile loop and three 8-mile loops. Just after 4 ½ miles, Keflezighi briefly went to the front, wearing a hat on a warm, sunny day. Franck de Almeida of Brazil then surged into an eight-second lead by 6 miles (30.38). But he was not considered a favorite and was quickly reeled in by Kipsang and more consequential runners.

By 9.3 miles, Kipsang had opened a 13-second lead over his countryman, Kirui, and Getu Feleke of Ethiopia. The Americans had fallen out of contention. Keflezighi had dropped 39 seconds back and Hall drifted away by two minutes, before dropping out.

Kipsang reached the halfway point in 1:03.15 with a 16-second lead over Kirui, Feleke and Ayele Abshero of Ethiopia. Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda also hung in with the chase pack. The question became, could Kipsang hold on in the heat?

The answer quickly became no. His margin began to dwindle. By 15.5 miles, Kipsang’s advantage had dwindled to seven seconds. The chase group had been whittled to three: Kirui of Kenya, Abshero of Ethiopia and Kiprotich of Uganda.

At about 16.5 miles, Kipsang was reeled in by Kirui and Kiprotich. Instead of dropping away, though, Kipsang began working with his two challengers.

The three hung together, reaching 18.6 miles in 1:30:15 with a 36-second lead over Abshero of Ethiopia and a 40-second lead over Marilson dos Santos, the winner of the 2008 New York City Marathon. Keflezighi, the lone remaining American, sat in 10th place, 2:02 behind.

Just beyond 21.7 miles, Kipsang and Kirui ran shoulder to shoulder and began to open the smallest of gaps on Kiprotich. Keflezighi had moved into sixth place, but he now trailed the leaders by 2:13.

Kiprotich did not fade, however. Instead, he cleverly moved into the the lead on a turn at 23 miles and began his push toward the finish.

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