Be proud to have [Joshua Cheptegei] as your countryman! And, mark you, he is so proud to be a Ugandan. Those are not my words. They are comments yours truly managed to tease from Addy Ruiter hours after Cheptegei set a new world 5000m record.
Ruiter, who watched history unfold from his Kapchorwa abode, was also admittedly well pleased in distance running’s new poster boy.
After working in a bracingly hands-on manner with Cheptegei for five years and counting, Ruiter says a part of him is starting to feel Ugandan. This probably explains why his calmness is no less apparent in adversity as victory. The record-breaking night in the Principality of Monaco two Fridays ago was, as you would imagine, not so much an event as it was a process.
Only with great difficulty was Ruiter able to put Cheptegei through his paces. The coronavirus pandemic was largely responsible for the predicament. The outbreak of the deadly virus went scorched earth on Cheptegei’s preparations, whittling down his training sessions from 12 to eight per week.
To compound matters, the 23-year-old distance runner had to train solo for not one but two months. Yet when Uganda emerged from lockdown at the backend of May, countervailing factors were slow to clear the path. So slow that Cheptegei could have ended up having less skin in the growth game.
If Cheptegei was to break a record of legendary standing, such as the one Kenenisa Bekele set in 2004, his training sessions needed to be relentless in targeting the aspect of speed. This is where we should by all means hold the government’s feet to the fire.
The fact that a new record was eventually set should not gloss over a state of total disorder. Sports infrastructure in Uganda is conspicuous by its absence.
While both Cheptegei and Ruiter performed their duties fearsomely well, it is absurd that the pair was forced to train on a grass track spanning just 406 metres in length. With five metres of elevation per lap to work with, the dynamic duo swiftly learnt that substance and vigour needed to be rolled into one. Cheptegei set great store by the improvised speed sessions of his coach, and thankfully things worked out just fine.
One could argue that nothing else matters more than setting the record. While that is true, there is something really tragic in the fact that Cheptegei could have shaved more than just two seconds off the old record was he better prepared. A world class training facility would have boded well for the Ugandan.
Unfortunately, nobody has the slightest idea as to why the national high altitude training centre in Teryet has not been actualised.
This year makes a decade since Moses Kipsiro won a long-distance double at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India. Following that feat, President Museveni sanctioned that work begins in earnest with the end goal of turning Teryet into a running paradise.
A decade later, Teryet finds itself still deeply enmeshed in red tape. Athletes, Cheptegei inclusive, have hardly been passive recipients of the slow progress. The break with passivity and conformism has seen some headway made. The road leading to the centre is being tarmacked albeit rather slowly. Indeed, the trappings of success are hard to decipher.
So back to the subject of pride: Cheptegei now prides himself on being the only Ugandan to set a track record. The 23-year-old distance runner is also proudly Ugandan.
What about government? What does it pride itself in when it comes to sport? What it prides itself in is – to be brutally frank – barely known and what little Ugandans know they don’t much like.