Born to run
Kenyan athlete Sammy Wanjiru’s performance when he won gold in the men’s marathon at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 placed him alongside the greatest runners of all time.
A winner of the London Marathon and two-time winner of the Chicago Marathon, he might well have been capable of a world record. He has died at the age of 24 in a fall from a balcony at his home in the town of Nyahururu in the Rift Valley. Police say he had been involved in a domestic dispute with his wife and another woman and that foul play was not suspected.
Wanjiru was the first of his countrymen to take an Olympic gold medal in the marathon.
In the heat and humidity of Beijing he produced an exceptional run, to win in an Olympic record time of 2hr 6min 32sec.
The ratified world-record time of 2hr 3min 59sec was set in Berlin in 2008 by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, but was achieved with the benefit of pacemakers. Wanjiru’s Beijing run was done unaided, in conditions where he had to break the competitive will of his opponents using his own race tactics, running aggressively from the front while also imposing debilitating changes of pace to destroy an elite field.
Wanjiru’s remarkable story began to take shape in 2002 when, aged 15, he finished third in a cross-country championship in Nairobi and was spotted by a scout recruiting talented young athletes to be educated in Japanese high schools. Wanjiru recalled telling the scout, “I do not know where Japan is”, but his mother agreed that he should go to high school in Sendai.
Wanjiru responded positively to coaching, notably from Japan’s 1992 Olympic silver medallist, Koichi Morishita. At the age of 18 he broke the world half-marathon record in a race in Rotterdam, having also set a world junior record over 10?000 metres in Brussels.
Sponsored by Toyota, Wanjiru completed his studies and was working in marketing for the company. But in 2008 he returned to Kenya and married Triza Njeri, with whom he had a son and a daughter.
By then, he had realised his best event was the marathon, having amassed a record of five victories, and he spoke openly about his desire to become the first man to smash the two-hour barrier, a time that has begun to assume the inspirational status that four minutes had for milers in the 1950s.
A small man physically, standing 1,62m and weighing only about 51kg, Wanjiru was a tough competitor. The best marathon time he recorded was when he won in London in 2009 in 2hr 5min 10sec, 14 seconds faster than the time he had clocked in finishing second in the London race 12 months earlier. He triumphed in the Chicago Marathon in both 2009 and 2010.
His second win in Chicago came after an epic duel with the Ethiopian, Tsegaye Kebede, who won the 2010 London Marathon when Wanjiru failed to finish because of a knee injury. Battling for prize money of more than $500 000, Kebede had seemingly broken away on three occasions, only for Wanjiru to claw his way back and ultimately win, in one of the greatest of all races.
Problems in his personal life surfaced earlier this year when he was forced to pull out of the London Marathon after being arrested at his home and charged with making death threats to his wife, the assault of a bodyguard and illegal possession of a firearm. The first two charges were dropped, but he still had to answer the charge relating to possession of an AK-47. Triza and their children survive him.