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Tearful tributes for Kenyan marathon prodigy Kiptum

Kelvin Kiptum broke the marathon record in October
Kelvin Kiptum broke the marathon record in October - Copyright AFP/File Luis ROBAYO
Kelvin Kiptum broke the marathon record in October - Copyright AFP/File Luis ROBAYO
Ailéen KIMUTAI

Hundreds of mourners paid an emotional tribute on Thursday to Kenya’s world marathon record-holder Kelvin Kiptum, ahead of his funeral in the nation’s athletics heartland.

Kiptum, 24, was killed on February 11 in a road accident near the Rift Valley town of Eldoret, leaving Kenya and the world of athletics reeling.

On the eve of Friday’s funeral, Kiptum’s coffin, encircled with flowers, was carried in a hearse through Eldoret, some people watching in silence, others singing hymns. 

His mother Mary Kangongo and widow Asenath Rotich wept inconsolably at the mortuary as the wooden coffin was loaded into the black hearse.

Kiptum, a father of two, is to be laid to rest in Naiberi, near Eldoret, where the government is building a new home for the national hero’s family.

“It is difficult to accept this happened,” said Athletics Kenya executive committee member Barnaba Korir.

“It is a big void in Kenyan athletics.”

Kiptum burst onto the marathon scene in 2022 and shattered the world record in Chicago in October last year.

He ran the distance in two hours and 35 seconds, slicing 34 seconds off the previous fastest time, set by his Kenyan rival, the marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge.

– ‘His death hit everyone hard’ –

On Thursday, the funeral procession snaked its way along roads lined with fans and athletes as it headed towards Iten, the legendary high-altitude training region, where mourners viewed Kiptum’s body in a half-open casket.

“My heart is still so heavy. The whole family is in a critical, sad moment,” his uncle Philip Kiplagat told AFP.

He described Kiptum as a “great man — someone you rely on”.

Local sports official Purity Koima said Kiptum was loved by everyone.

“We lost so many athletes here in Iten but Kiptum’s death has hit everyone hard,” she said.

Shoe-shiner Paul Ouma, who followed the procession on foot for more than two kilometres (over one mile), said Kiptum’s death was “very painful”.

“We were expecting a lot from him,” Ouma told AFP. 

In Iten, dozens of mourners signed a book of condolence.

World Athletics head Sebastian Coe, who arrived in Eldoret on Thursday, and Kenyan President William Ruto are expected to be among the attendees at Friday’s funeral.

– ‘You inspired us all’ –

Police said Kiptum was driving near Eldoret at around 11:00 pm (2000 GMT) on February 11 when his car veered off the road into a ditch and hit a tree.

His Rwandan coach Gervais Hakizimana, 36, also died while another passenger, a woman, was injured.

Kenya’s chief government pathologist, Johansen Oduor, said on Wednesday the results of an autopsy showed that Kiptum had suffered severe head injuries.

Toxicology tests were still under way, he added. 

Hakizimana, who had trained Kiptum since 2019, was laid to rest in the Rwandan capital, Kigali on Wednesday.

The young athlete had competed in only three marathons, recording three of the all-time fastest seven times for the event.

After flying through the course in Chicago, the then 23-year-old waved and blew kisses at spectators before crossing the finish line.

“A world record was not in my mind today,” he said afterwards. 

“I knew one day, one time, I’d be a world-record holder.”

He was favourite to take gold at this year’s Paris Olympics, where he was expected to go head-to-head with Kipchoge for the first time.

Known for maintaining a gruelling training schedule that sometimes topped 300 kilometres (190 miles) a week, Kiptum had only recently announced he was hoping to smash the mythic two-hour mark in Rotterdam in April. 

“Kelvin, you achieved greatness and inspired us all,” Coe said in a tribute on X last week.

AFP
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