It was a long 22-hours back from Oslo to San Diego yesterday, only to hear of the tragic passing of 2008 Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya upon my landing. Here I was returning from a memorial service for one of the greatest champions in athletics history only to be greeted by news of the premature death of yet another. And though the passing of Grete Waitz at age 57 to cancer was tragic and all too soon, the news of Wanjiru’s sudden, violent end following a domestic dispute at his home in Kenya at age 24 was, in its own way, even more shocking and senseless.
Details of the incident are still filtering out of Kenya, and I won’t offer any speculation except to suggest that youthful fame and fortune are never simply a single-edged blade carving happiness from a rough-hewn upbringing of need and want. Over and again we have witnessed the tragic cuts that sudden wealth and corresponding sycophancy can lay open on those ill-prepared to parry their thrusts. Sammy Wanjiru was a passionate racer, and evidently he carried that passion into his every day dealings to a calamitous, untimely end.
What I knew of the great champion came only from the vantage point of a reporter, one fortunate enough to be up close for what was his final marathon, and one of the greatest marathon performances ever, his victory in the 2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
Watching from the lead motorcycle side car while calling the race for television, I got to witness from scant meters away the stirring final miles’ duel between Sammy and his great Ethiopian rival Tsegay Kebede. For all who saw Chicago 2010 there may one day be a race to equal it, but none that can surpass its brilliance and passion. The glory of sport and the potential of the human spirit were brought into high relief on 10-10-10.
Dropped innumerable times over the final 5K by Kebede, the diminutive 2010 London champion and bronze medalist from Beijing 2008 to Sammy’s gold, each time Sammy found the fortitude and strength to mount an answering surge to cover what had seemed moments before to be Kebede’s winning move. Gentle men and women of the assembled press corps, dispassionate chroniclers, threw aside their cloaks of indifference and rose in full-throated appreciation of the magnificence unfolding before them.
When Sammy finally made his own move over the small bridge that crossed the railroad yard below with but 600 meters remaining, the thrill and glory of his achievement was such that it brought tears of appreciation to even the most hardened soul. And even now the memory of that duel lingers in the hearts of any who have ever attempted to place one foot in front of another in the futile chase against Father Time.
Afterwards, I received the following e-mail from Sammy’s coach Claudio Berardelli of Italy. I have left it in its raw form to capture Claudio’s Italian accent.
“About Sammy…..I can just tell you what happened from July when for the first time he decided to join the group (James Kwambai, Martin Lel, Evans Cheruiyot, Robert (Cheruiyot) and others) in Italy for our usual training stage in the Alpes.
Sammy arrived there probably 4 to 5 kgs overweight; not even able to stay 50′ running with the group. At the end of the 3 weeks training he was slimmer, but still not fit at all! Coming back to Kenya he decided to move from Nyahururu (his home area) to Eldoret (where I am based with most of my athletes). He stayed here with me for almost 6 weeks but sincerely speaking he was really struggling! You can’t believe that sometimes he could be left even from non-professional runners! I didn’t know where to put my mind to find a solution……one day I even showed him all the bad stories about him which I had found in internet, saying he was a finished athlete, no more competitive…….in order to stimulate his “appetite” again.
“But sure Sammy is mentally tough!! He never lost control and he was positive even after a bad training session. Sometimes he was the one to keep me up. He never refused any technical proposal from my side although the body was not responding the way we were expecting! Only probably the last 3 training sessions were better, but not good enough for somebody who had to go to challenge Kebede and the rest!
“Chicago was a big surprise for me, but after the race I had to make a couple of considerations. Probably Sammy had not so bad training here in Eldoret, only that the different place, different program, didn’t allow his body to find the usual feedbacks during training…..but I think he found it in the race! But for sure, I could not predict what happened in Chicago. Now I am asking myself where can Sammy reach if he does everything in time before a marathon and stays for 3 months fully busy for it?
“I am sure in Chicago he was no more than 85% of his top shape! The good think is that he is already here with me jogging every day trying to stay a bit fit! This guy is a special one. He looks always cool, but inside him he has s fire!! I hope I will be able to help him to be there for some other years to come! It has been really great to watch Chicago with your voice pushing these guys!!!!”
When Sammy Wanjiru captured the Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon, he did so by breaking every cardinal rule in the marathon handbook. In the heat and humidity of that Beijing summer’s day he attacked from the gun – 4:41 for the first mile is my memory – then surged continuously throughout the distance. It was a profligate spending of preciously limited fuel, and seemed fraught with potential disaster. Yet Sammy never faltered, finishing nearly a minute ahead of Jaouad Gharib of Morocco, and almost four minutes up on Tsegay Kebede himself, and all in a new Olympic record 2:06:32.
In many ways that Beijing Olympic Marathon marked the beginning of a new era in the sport. Four-time Boston and New York City Marathon champion of old Bill Rodgers once famously said, “The marathon can humble you”. While still true for the vast majority of competitors, through Sammy’s assertive assault in Beijing, the marathon itself was brought to its knees. No longer a wilfull slog to the outer limits of human endurance, the epic distance was instead transformed into just another test of speed by Sammy’s youthful temerity.
We will never know, now, what records and limits might have been set by the still maturing racer. Instead, the fame and hubris that attended his victories and embroiled his private life conspired to take him from our midst in a nano-second of overweening disregard. Perhaps these polar legacies that Sammy etched so indelibly – as both victor and victim – will live on and serve to instruct us in memoriam.
At the end of the 1960 movie Spartacus – starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick – a Roman centurion addresses a hillside covered in slaves who had been captured following their unsuccessful revolt.
“Slaves you were and slaves you remain,” he intones. “But the terrible penalty of crucifixion has been set aside under the single condition that you identify the body or the living person of the slave called Spartacus.”
The camera pans the anguished faces as Spartacus sits in their midst awaiting his fate. Then, just as he is about to rise to give himself up and save the lives of his men, one, followed by another, until each and every slave stands and announces defiantly, “I am Spartacus!”, affirming allegiance to their great leader.
Ever since Sammy’s Beijing Olympic run, at any and every marathon around the world where a Kenyan man has laced up his racing shoes – think as recently as Emmanuel Mutai in London and Geoffrey Mutai in Boston – you can hear the silent refrain echo along the routes as they attack the distance in defiance of history’s warning of potential ruin.
“I am Sammy Wanjiru!” they cry. “We are all Sammy Wanjiru!”