The man who died as Olympic champion

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Sammy Wanjiru. Photo: SNappa2006 via flickr

In life he was one of the most extraordinary young athletes the world had ever seen.

Kenya’s Samuel ‘Sammy’ Wanjiru seemed destined for greatness; a teenage world record holder and a 21-year-old Olympic gold medallist when he won the marathon in 2008 in Beijing.

But by the time of the London Olympics in 2012, Wanjiru would not defend his crown. Just one year before, Wanjiru’s life had succumbed to tragedy.

His death in May 2011 came after a domestic dispute that saw him fall from a balcony, meaning that at the age of just 24, Wanjiru died as the reigning Olympic champion.

When he was only 18, Wanjiru was squaring off with and even coming out on top against the likes of marathon legend Haile Gebreselassie, with the pair trading half marathon world records between 2005 and 2007.

First Wanjiru got it, then it went from Zersenay Tadese to Gebreselassie, before Wanjiru then responded by breaking the record twice in two months during early 2007. However, it was the very next year when the 21-year-old would make history in more ways than one.

Despite only making a full step up to marathon at the end of 2007, the world half-marathon record holder reached the pinnacle when he became the first ever Kenyan to win an Olympic marathon after he stormed to gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

His winning time of 2.06.32 is also an Olympic record that still stands to this day, giving him a huge list of accolades that very few could boast at his age.

This achievement also highlighted another of Wanjiru’s biggest strengths; the ability to shrug off huge amounts of pain and still clinch victory. Just a year before his Olympic gold he had suffered a huge bout of malaria which could have easily ended his career for good.

His last ever race at the 2010 Chicago marathon also saw him produce what his coach Federico Rosa described as the greatest surprise I have ever seen in my life”, when he overcame a pre-race stomach virus and produced an incredible final surge to clinch the win and defend his title.

The champion was nowhere near his top shape, with coach Rosa admitting they had all but ruled out a win that day. But afterwards, Wanjiru simply said: “You must think. You go to war; you are fighting.”

After proving he still had it in him, Wanjiru now felt ready to resume his old rivalry with the then-marathon record holder Gebreselassie, saying “the body is coming” in a statement of intent to go for the Ethiopian’s world record.

But nobody knew at the time that this defining race in Chicago would ultimately be his last. All seemed fine with Wanjuri in competitions. Outside however, it would soon turn into a different story.

Just two months later, the champion found himself with charges of illegally possessing an AK-47 assault rifle, as well as threatening his wife Triza Njeri with the weapon.

Wanjiru denied the allegations and the charges were later dropped, however he was still due to face trial on 23rd May 2011 for the possession of the AK-47, barely a year before he had to defend his Olympic title. However, neither of these events would ever come to fruition.

Instead, just eight days before the court case, the 24-year-old’s life took its biggest possible setback when his wife returned home to find him with another woman. After a row broke out, Njeri stormed out of the building, prompting Wanjiru to head towards the balcony and call after her, before suddenly falling off the balcony to his death. It’s ultimately unclear whether he fell, was hit by an object or jumped.

Three post-mortem reports are said to have produced different conclusions and in 2015 a pathologist suggested he did not die by suicide but was instead struck with an object on the head.

All the records, all the titles and all the comebacks from extreme physical pain led to this chaotic situation that ended his career for good.

Wanjiru had made his name as the marathon world record holder and the first ever Kenyan Olympic champion and now the latter would be a title he would sadly take to his grave.

Following his death tributes poured in from the sport’s very top figures such as world 5000m and 10,000m record holder Kenenisa Bekele and of course his short-time rival Haile Gebreselassie who said “One wonders if we as an athletics family could have avoided this tragedy.”

Current Olympic champion and marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge described him as “a great guy” who “brought a lot of honour to Kenya”; with his hugely important Olympic accolade one that surely must never be forgotten.

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First published on: 16 January, 2019 3:58 pm

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