LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
On the last day of the London Olympics, the world watched in amazement as a Ugandan runner came seemingly from nowhere to pass the favored Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes and win gold. His name is Stephen Kiprotich. In the last two weeks, he has catapulted from relatively unknown athlete to national hero. NPR's John Burnett reports from the capital of Kampala.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Stephen Kiprotich and one of his managers sit at a table on the lawn of a posh hotel sipping tropical drinks beside the pool. An ill-fitting new suit seems to swallow his 120-pound frame, which is so reedy that his countrymen compare him to elephant grass. The shy, 23-year-old is trying to remain relaxed during what's clearly a new experience - talking about himself.
STEPHEN KIPROTICH: It has changed greatly. Now, like, before, before no one knew about me but now I'm known worldwide.
WERTHEIMER: So, you say before no one knew you, now they know you worldwide. Your life has changed greatly.
BURNETT: Kiprotich has vaulted from an unknown runner born in a grass-and-cow-dung hut in a forest to a sports celebrity who is now a millionaire by Ugandan standards. President Yoweri Museveni awarded him 200 million Ugandan shillings - about $80,000. And he's reportedly received many times that in private and corporate gifts. This week, the New Vision newspaper asked: What should Golden Boy Kiprotich do with all of his money? Keep it in bank, invest it or share it with friends? To which the polite, reserved runner responds:
KIPROTICH: I can't stop running because of this big money.
BURNETT: He says he cannot let the big money go to his head and keep him off the track; he needs to focus on his athletic career and prepare for his next challenges - a Dutch marathon in November and next year's London Marathon. His rags-to-riches story has captivated Ugandans, a country where the per capita annual income is less than $600, and where there's a shortage of worthy heroes. Martha Nanyombi is a barista in the coffee shop at the hotel where Kiprotich is staying.
MARTHA NANYOMBI: When he came to the hotel I was very happy. I hugged him. I went and welcomed him. Everyone was happy, people came. They took photos with him.
BURNETT: Ugandans are a little worried about how their new boy wonder will handle his fame and fortune. Everyone knows the tragic story of Samuel Wanjira, the Kenyan world-record holder who turned to alcohol and womanizing and died in a fall from his balcony last year in unclear circumstances.
KIPROTICH: My wife is a believer. I'm a believer. We go to the Catholic Church. I don't allow such things to happen.
BURNETT: So, you say you're a devout Catholic and your wife is, too. And you say you're not going to allow these sorts of temptations to happen.
KIPROTICH: Yes, yeah, yeah.
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BURNETT: Hearing Uganda's national anthem - which is only a minute long - played at the medal ceremony was a great mood lifter in this perennially troubled East African country. Kiprotich injected life into the spirit of a fatigued, hopeless nation, wrote one columnist.
DANIEL KALINAKI: You mention Uganda and for many people it's Idi Amin, it's HIV and AIDS, ebola, it's Joseph Kony. But that's not all we are about as a country.
BURNETT: Daniel Kalinaki is editor of the Daily Monitor newspaper.
KALINAKI: To have him at closing ceremony with entire world watching, it was as if the crowning moment for the Olympics was for Kiprotich and Uganda.
BURNETT: Ugandans have been quick to jump on their government for its paltry support of aspiring athletes. Kiprotich did it entirely on his own. With no training facility in his own country, he went to neighboring Kenya and trained in Eldoret, home of the great Kalenjin runners. A sports management company paid for his room and board; out-of-pocket expenses came from his modest salary at the Uganda Prison Service, under whose aegis he runs. The gold medal winner has just been promoted to assistant superintendent, though he'll to run full-time. The president has promised to build a high-altitude training facility in Kiprotich's village, as well as a proper home for his destitute parents. Uganda's hometown hero - once all by himself - is suddenly surrounded by a team of managers, lawyers and public relations people, which include his former boss at the Prisons Service, Godfred, who gloats...
GODFRED: Stephen is worth billions of shillings, he's worth billions of shillings.
BURNETT: As for the bewildered young marathoner, he seems like he can't wait to pull on his track shoes again and be done with the celebrity fuss. Have you seen your page in Wikipedia?
KIPROTICH: I don't understand what you're saying.
BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Kampala, Uganda.
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WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.