Athletics

Joshua Cheptegei: Six things you didn't know 

The 5,000m world record holder is a double Commonwealth gold medallist and is also the reigning World Cross Country and World 10,000m champion. But here are some less known things about the Ugandan distance runner.

By Evelyn Watta ·

Joshua Cheptegei is the real deal.

The Ugandan surprised the world by breaking the 5,000m world record in his first track race of the season with a brilliant solo run in Monaco as Diamond League athletics action returned on Friday, August 14.

Cheptegei erased a mark that had stood for 16 years originally set by Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, who was impressed by Cheptegei's achievement as “it is very difficult to run any world record.”

His record run came as a shock to many as he had not raced the 5,000m at a major championship since his distance double victory at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.

But after bettering the world record during training at Namboole stadium in Kampala, the 23-year-old was confident he could lower the mark.

And he went on to smash the 10,000m record in a special event on 7th October, to complete an amazing few weeks for the Ugandan.

Here are six interesting things on the new king of the track, who also plans to do the distance double at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Uganda's Joshua Cheptegei celebrates after breaking the 5,000m world record in Monaco, August 2020 [Getty Images]

1 - Cross Country failure fuelled Cheptegei's success

When Uganda hosted the 2017 World Cross Country Championships in 2017, Cheptegei was the host nation's best shot at gold.

He thrilled the home fans by taking a nearly unbeatable lead in the senior 10km race. But with a lap to go, he began to slow down, and wilted as fatigue took over his body.

He struggled through the last kilometre and stumbled past the finish line in 30th position in an almost drunken stupor.

The video of his finish went viral.

Cheptegei was hugely disappointed but that failure played a huge role in his future victories.

“It took me some weeks to get over. When I met people they felt sorry for me, but when they asked me I would feel bad because they made me remember what happened,” Cheptegei told World Athletics.

“I had to just stay at home, not go around because I didn’t want to meet people.”

In 2018, he clinched distance double gold at Gold Coast, after silver at the 2017 World Championships in London behind Mo Farah.

Cheptegei finally won Uganda’s first World Cross country title in Aarhus, Denmark in 2019 before rounding off his season with 10,000 m gold at the Worlds in Doha.

2 - Football was his first love

Growing up in his village in Kwoti, in Kapchorwa, in the high-altitude area of eastern Uganda, he played football like most African kids.

He would sometimes attempt the triple and long jump while in primary school but he seemed more inclined to the team sport.

After watching him during some school runs, Benjamin Njia, a friend who is now his long-term local coach, encouraged him to run as he had the perfect gait and endurance.

“When I saw him running, I saw his talent and pushed him to concentrate on athletics. He started running seriously in 2004, and it paid off when he went for the 2014 World Juniors in Eugene. He won the 10,000m gold,” said Njia.

Njia also hails from Kapchorwa, an area that has produced several top Ugandan middle and distance runners including Stephen Kiprotich, the Olympic marathon champion from London 2012.

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3 - Inspector Joshua Cheptegei

Following his superb run at the World Juniors, Cheptegei was drafted by the Uganda Police when he moved up to the senior international circuit.

Competition for promotion within the Police is tough and can take years.

But not for Cheptegei. He joined as a constable five years ago, and has quickly risen up the ranks thanks to his athletics prowess.

He was promoted from a Special Police Constable to Inspector of Police, leaping up four ranks, following the Commonwealth Games double gold.

The three-time world championship finalist is likely to be rewarded with another promotion following his exceptional run, “possibly an Assistant Superintendent of Police,” according to Njia.

4 - Fourth world record in two years

The lanky runner normally trains in Nijmegen, Netherlands, where he was won the local 15km race four times.

In 2018, he had his first shot at fast running when he improved the 15km world best by eight seconds to 41.05 seconds.

He wound up his 2019 season with a 10km road race world record in Valencia in 26:38, bettering the old mark from 2010 by six seconds.

Cheptegei’s first major race in 2020 before the Covid-19 pandemic disruption was in Monaco in February, where he set a new 5km road race world record in 12 minutes 51 seconds, erasing the previous mark of 13:22.

After training through lockdown on uneven murram track in his hometown, Cheptegei moved to the capital Kampala when the government eased lockdown restrictions.

There, he had access to the Namboole stadium where he polished up his speed work for his first track race this season.

He managed to lower the record down by 1.99 seconds, bettering the long-standing mark set by Bekele, his club-mate at the NN Running team, with a brilliant run at the Louis II Stadium.

He is just his landlocked country’s second world record holder on the track in nearly five decades.

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5 - An Anti-FGM advocate

The reigning 10,000m world champion is a strong advocate against the practice of female genital mutilation that is widely practised amongst his Kalenjin community and around his home town.

FGM is recognised as a violation of women’s human rights that still continues in 29 countries worldwide.

There has been a surge in FGM in eastern Uganda, despite it being criminalised in 2010, statistics that influenced Cheptegei to support efforts to eradicate the tradition.

“FGM is an occurrence that I should talk about.

"We can come together and end FGM in Kapchorwa other parts of the country and world,” he said.

6 - Lover of literature

After two years at Bugema University, Cheptegei opted out of his Degree in Bachelor of Education, where he was to major in languages and literature.

On one of the several occasions he visited the State House Lodge in Entebbe, President Yoweri Museveni advised him to focus on his track career and further committed to build a training track in Kapchorwa.

The Rio 2016 Olympian heeded the call.

Cheptegei's love for literature is evident.

He is a strong and passionate storyteller and also an ardent reader.

“He reads a lot of books during his free time,” Njia, who was part of Cheptegei’s coaching team that worked with him in the run-up to his world record run in Monaco, told the Olympic Channel from Kampala.

“When you listen to him talking you can tell he is intelligent, that comes from reading.

"He is also very social and cuts across all circles and networks, that’s a natural skill strengthened by the fact that he studied literature.”