In 2008, distance runner Sammy Wanjiru (1986–2011) set an Olympic record in the marathon, completing the 26.2-mile course at the Beijing Summer Olympics with a time of 2:06:32. With this win, Wanjiru became the first Kenyan to win Olympic gold at this distance. He also set course records at the London and Chicago marathons prior to his death in 2011.
Wanjiru's family lacked the resources to send him to secondary school and as he looked to his future, he saw running as a way out of poverty. Choices were limited for East African boys, and if Wanjiru stayed home, he would likely become a mason or farm laborer. At age 13, he went to the Nyahururu running camp, where Kenya's elite runners trained. Located 150 miles north of Nairobi, the Nyahururu camp sat at an elevation of 7,800 feet. Kenya's top athletes trained there, building lung capacity due to the high altitude and doing without the customized shoes and garments used by most runners. The athletes slept two to a bed, rising at 5:45 a.m. to run. After their workout, they scrounged the countryside for wild vegetables to add to their ground-maize porridge, the staple meal of the camp.
Runners at the Kenyan camp quickly noticed Wanjiru's aggressive race style. Kenyan runner Isaac Macharia, who trained at the training camp with Wanjiru, told New Yorker writer Xan Rice that Wanjiru worked hard. “He was very driven,” Macharia recalled. “First, he had a passion for running. And the second issue was poverty, wanting to get away from it.”
Japanese running scout Shunichi Kobayashi also took notice of Wanjiru. Kobayashi was fascinated with Kenyan runners because of their exceptional biomechanics and extraordinary aerobic ability. For years, he had been recruiting runners for Japanese high schools that offered scholarships to top runners able to compete in the prestigious Japanese long-distance road relays known as the ekiden. When Kobayashi helped Wanjiru obtain a scholarship from the Ikuei Gakuen High School in Sendai, Japan, the young Kenyan did not even know where Japan was located. After arriving at the school in March 2002, Wanjiru suffered homesickness: The food, the chopsticks, the language, and the climate were all foreign to the African teen. He learned Japanese and studied aikido to help him discipline his mind for long races. While Wanjiru was enrolled at Ikuei Gakuen, the school won two national ekiden championships.
After graduating from Ikuei Gakuen in 2004, Wanjiru signed with the Toyota Kyushu running team, which was coached by Japanese Olympic marathon silver medalist Koichi Morishita. In Japan, running was controlled by corporations, which “employed” runners as full-time employees. In exchange, the runners received coaching and training at top-notch company facilities. They then competed with the company name inscribed across their race singlet. Wanjiru worked a few hours a week in the Toyota office and appeared at public-relations events. Otherwise, he spent his time training and competing in races.
Wanjiru was built to run. He was short with powerful quads that gave him a quick, low-heeled turnover. Under Morishita's guidance, Wanjiru concentrated on track events, using the opportunity of the short distances to build his fast-twitch muscles and improve his speed. “He was the type of athlete who practiced at 100 percent and raced at 130 or 140 percent,” Morishita told Brett Larner in an interview for Japan Running News. “He didn't really have much basic speed. If you look at his 5,000 meter or whatever, it wasn't that fast, but he had incredible strength to hold a pace.” In August 2005, Wanjiru set a new world junior record in the 10,000 meters during an international meet in Brussels, charting a time of 26:41.75. A few weeks later, he smashed the world half-marathon record while racing in Rotterdam, Netherlands, completing the 13.1-mile course in 59 minutes and 16 seconds.
Hampered by injuries in 2006, Wanjiru saw his half-marathon record broken by another runner. Wanjiru came back strong in 2007, reclaiming the half-marathon record in February 2007 with a time of 58:53 at the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon in the United Arab Emirates. Wanjiru clipped more time off the record the following month, completing a half marathon in 58:33 in a race at The Hague, Netherlands. At The Hague, Wanjiru set a new course record and received a $25,000 bonus, which he donated to a children's home in Nyahururu.
Partway through 2007, Wanjiru turned his attention to the marathon—a 26.2-mile, 385-yard race typically dominated by older, more seasoned runners. Wanjiru was 21 when he made his marathon debut in December 2007 in Fukuoka, Japan. Macharia worked alongside him as a pace setter for the first 19 miles to help the Kenyan manage the distance required to race the finish. Wanjiru set a course record with a time of 2:06:39. In April 2008, he finished the London marathon with a time of 2:05:24, which put him nine seconds behind the winner, fellow Kenyan Martin Lel, who set a new course record at 2:05:15.
In July 2008, Wanjiru resigned from Toyota so he could spend more time in Kenya. On a visit home in 2005, Wanjiru had married Terezah Njeri, and while Wanjiru trained in Japan, Njeri had stayed in Kenya and gave birth to their first child. They had two children altogether. Reportedly, tension loomed between Hannah Wanjiru and daughter-in-law Njeri, mostly over the disposition of Wanjiru's income. Wanjiru also returned to his homeland so he could compete for Kenya in the upcoming Olympics. His second-place finish in the London marathon assured him a spot on the Kenyan team.
The 2008 Summer Olympics took place in Beijing. Because of the heat, humidity, and pollution in the Chinese city, race analysts expected moderate times, but the Africans pushed the pace. The front pack stayed ahead of world-record time for the first 10 kilometers. At 16 kilometers (approximately 10 miles), Wanjiru picked up the pace and surged ahead, cutting the lead group down to five—all Africans. At 37 kilometers (approximately 23 miles), he kicked up the pace again and took the lead for good. The 21-year-old, running his third marathon, held on for the gold, and his finishing time of 2:06:32 set a new Olympic record.
Wanjiru defied heat and dehydration to win the gold, setting new expectations for warm-weather marathons. In recalling the race, he told Japanese sportswriter Akio Harada that he believed high-paced marathons would become the norm because African athletes now saw that it was possible to beat the heat. “Africans have the strength to run fast in the heat, and I think they learned from my race that running too slowly is bad,” he commented, his remarks to Harada published in Japan Running News. “It's all mental. It was a big thing that I went over this wall.”
When Wanjiru returned to Kenya, he was suddenly a superstar and was greeted by a three-mile-long convoy in Nyahururu. For a Kenyan, Wanjiru was also extremely wealthy: Race sponsors paid him six figures to show up at the starting line, and added to that were bonuses for winning races as well as deals with Nike and a Japanese supplement company. In contrast, the average Kenyan farmer made $736 annually. Naturally, the people in Wanjiru's community came to him asking for financial help. Requests also came from politicians, who asked him to appear at events and charities sought his assistance. In addition, Wanjiru used his earnings to buy equipment and food for other Kenyan athletes.
In 2007 Wanjiru had built his family a two-story home surrounded by a compound edged with a security wall and an electric fence. He built his mother a home within the compound, 150 yards from his own. With mother and daughter-in-law living in close proximity, tensions within the compound mounted. By 2009, friends noticed that Wanjiru was stressed and drinking heavily, and his worries increased when he was robbed at gunpoint. Wanjiru added to the household tension that same year when he took a second wife, as permitted by tribal custom. Mary Wacera was a local runner and a 2006 world junior bronze medalist in the 5,000 meters. Wanjiru's mother, Hannah, seemed to like Wacera better than Njeri.
Wanjiru spent 2009 training during the day and drinking at night. It was common for friends to stop by his house and drag him to the bars because they knew he would pick up the tab. They would get Wanjiru drunk and then sell him items—land and cars—at huge mark-ups. Despite drinking heavily, the athlete remained committed to his training and the consequences of his alcoholism were not noticed by the public. According to Francis Kamau, one of Wanjiru's trainers during this period, the Kenyan marathoner “would drink at night and still run the time he wanted the next day.” As Kamau added in his comments to New Yorker writer Rice, “God had built the boy in a different way.”
Despite drinking, Wanjiru stayed at the top of his game. In April 2009, he won the London marathon, setting a new course record at 2:05:10. From the start, he pushed hard, finishing the first five kilometers in 14:08. At 40 kilometers (approximately 25 miles), he skipped a fluid station and sprinted ahead to ensure the win. Months later, in October, Wanjiru won the Chicago marathon in 2:05:41, setting a new record for the fastest marathon run in the United States. His finish time broke the former Chicago course record by one second and earned Wanjiru a $100,000 bonus. “His performances are just stunning, to go out from the gun and run what seems to the rest of us are suicidal paces,” U.S. marathon champion Deena Kastor told Chicago Tribune writer Philip Hersh shortly after Wanjiru's Chicago victory. The Kenyan runner was 22 when he won in Chicago and the youngest runner to win four of the world's major marathons.
Wanjiru's streak ended in April 2010 when he quit the London marathon at the halfway point. His coach, Claudio Berardelli, told New Yorker writer Xan Rice that the Kenyan showed up for training that season nine pounds heavier. When he struggled to keep up a competitive pace, he suggested that Wanjiru pull out of the Chicago marathon, but Wanjiru was determined to race. In October 2010, he took his place at the starting line in Chicago, along with 38,132 other runners. He was in such bad shape the press wrote him off, but Wanjiru pushed hard and defended his title, winning in 2:06:24.
Wanjiru never left Kenya. He died on May 15, 2011, following a fall of his home's second-floor balcony. Wanjiru had traveled to Nyahururu that day to see his lawyer and had stopped at a local bar before heading to his house, accompanied by a woman. Njeri reportedly stormed the house and locked Wanjiru and the woman in the bedroom. Although his death was ruled a suicide, some investigators suspected that it may have been an accident resulting from his inebriation. Wanjiru's mother claimed that her son was murdered. A pathologist later said the death was due to blunt injury to the back of the head, which led investigators to wonder if the injury was caused by the fall or from being struck. The truth may never be known. In any event, the investigation was disastrous: Local police failed to secure the crime scene shortly after arriving, when suicide was suspected, and the crime scene, Wanjiru's house, was cleaned before forensic evidence could be collected.
Feuds over Wanjiru's money lingered after his death, as second wife Wacera and his mother continued to accuse Njeri of murder, knowing that, if convicted, she would receive nothing from his estate. Sports journalist and friend Peter Njenga maintained that Wanjiru's demise was caused by the people he wanted so desperately to help. “Many young athletes relied on him and he used to pay for their food and accommodation,” Njenga explained, according to the National. “But he also started being surrounded by hangers-on who were not interested in his welfare. Their intention was to get a share of his money. He was slowly being destroyed by the local people.”
Chicago Tribune, October 9, 2009, Philip Hersch, “Wanjiru on Top of World,” p. 2; October 12, 2009, Philip Hersch, “His Time Is Money: Wanjiru Slips under Course Record to Collect Extra Reward of $100,000,” p. A2.
New Yorker, May 21, 2012, Xan Rice, “Finish Line,” pp. 48–57.
Times (London, England), May 17, 2011, “Samuel Wanjiru,” p. 53.
Washington Post, May 17, 2011, “Kenyan Runner, Reigning Olympic Champion,” p. B6.
Daily Mail (London, England), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/ (February 10, 2015), “Kenyan Marathoner Wanjiru Killed, Not Suicide.”
ESPN online, http://www.espn.com/ (May 15, 2012), Shaun Assael, “Sammy Wanjiru's Death Still a Mystery.”
Japan Running News online, http://japanrunningnews.blogspot.com/ (December 24, 2008), Akio Harada, interview with Wanjiru; (December 21, 2011), Brett Larner, interview with Koichi Morishita.
National online (United Arab Emirates), http://www.thenational.ae/ (July 17, 2016), “Samuel Wanjiru, Tragic Olympic Hero Who ‘Brought a Lot of Honour to Kenya,’ Now Lies Forgotten.” ❑