Sammy Wanjiru achieved one of the most remarkable feats in Olympic marathon history, but what followed is a story of mystery and tragedy.
The Kenyan set a new Olympic games record of 2:06.32 when he won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games ahead of Jaouad Gharib of Morocco and Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia.
An Olympic record is a remarkable achievement in any circumstances, but Wanjiru’s is all the more impressive. Beijing was extremely hot and humid on the morning of the race and even the spectators in the main stadium and on the roadside were drenched in sweat. The heat and humidity combined with Beijing’s famous air pollution to make conditions some of the least favourable for a marathon runner. Despite this, Wanjiru attacked from the gun, and ran the first five kilometres in 14:52.
Legend has it that when the newly-crowned champion was asked about how the conditions affected his tactics and performance, he said that because of the heat he wanted to finish the race sooner so he just ran faster.
The comment illustrates something of the Kenyan mentality towards distance running. Ultimately, they believe that the key to success is hard work. The key to success is working harder in training than you do in a race. The key to success is working harder than any of your training partners, or anyone else on the track or the trails around Iten in the Rift Valley. This philosophy works because most of the other athletes running around Iten have enough raw talent to be the best in the world.
Wanjiru’s compatriots and training partners are also motivated by something other than patriotism, the Olympic ideals and the quest for personal excellence. They are motivated by money.
Most rural Kenyans, especially those from the running heartland of the Rift Valley, have very few opportunities to make enough money to live a comfortable life, free of the endless, monotonous physical labour which defines the life of most Iten locals. Running is their chance to make serious money.
It may surprise many people, even keen fans of Athletics, to know that Wanjiru won the first ever Olympic marathon gold medal for his country. Kenyans are famed for their long-distance victories, but have actually had more success in middle-distance events, or on the lucrative international road-running circuit.
Wanjiru and his neighbours grew up seeing successful distance runners making money. Champions bought nice houses for themselves and their families, wore good clothes and drove modern cars. They looked after their families and sent their children to good schools. Wanjiru and his peers grew up desiring this success.
Unfortunately, Wanjiru was one of the successful Kenyan runners who suffered from sudden fame and wealth and died in mysterious circumstances.
Wanjiru died after falling from the balcony of his home in Nyahuru 2011. The great champion, who still holds the world junior record for 10,000m, who won the London and Chicago marathons and set three world records for the half marathon, was dead before his 26th birthday.
The tragedy of a rare talent lost for ever is matched only by the mystery of his death. It was never established if Wanjiru was pushed, fell or jumped from the balcony.
The official police investigation and court proceedings failed to prove conclusively how Wanjiru died.
One theory suggests that his first of three wives, Triza Njeri, found him in bed with another woman and locked the couple in the bedroom. When she apparently ran outside Wanjiru jumped from the balcony, causing his death.
Another theory suggests that Wanjiru was murdered by a group of men working alongside Njeri. Wanjiru’s mother, Hannah told a court that she believes her son was murdered. During this investigation, a former pathologist claimed that the champion jumped from the balcony or was pushed, that he landed on his legs but was then struck by a blunt object.
What is known is that Wanjiru had been drinking at the time of his death. He had battled alcohol addiction throughout most of his short adult life, even while he was winning major international races and breaking records. This surely is testament to his talent and the amazing toughness of a fierce competitor whose finishing time in the stifling heat of Beijing is still the Olympic record.