As might be expected in any nation with a talent pool as vast as theirs, Kenyans continue to debate the makeup of their 2016 Rio Olympic Men’s & Women’s Marathon squads. They also pray that the non-compliance ruling handed down last week by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) doesn’t derail their heroes from competing in Rio this August. Yet even amidst those attention-grabbing headlines, we are sadly reminded that it was on this day in 2011 that Kenya lost its legendary 2008 Olympic Marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru, who died tragically when he fell from the second story balcony of his home in Nyahururu during a domestic dispute.
Wanjiru was only 24 years old at the time of his death, and still had room to grow as an athlete. The following excerpt is taken from my blog the day after Wanjiru’s death.
“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.
Over the final 5K Wanjiru was dropped at least three times by Kebede, the diminutive 2010 London champion and bronze medalist from Beijing 2008 to Sammy’s gold. Each time Kebede pulled free, however, Sammy found the fortitude and strength to mount an answering surge to cover what had seemed moments before to be Kebede’s winning move. Even the gentle men and women of the assembled press corps, dispassionate chroniclers all, threw aside their cloaks of indifference and rose in full-throated appreciation of the battle unfolding before them.
When Sammy finally made his own winning charge over the small bridge that crossed the railroad yard with only 600 meters remaining, the glory of his achievement was such that it stirred 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.
For all its excellence in Olympic distance running from 1968 on, Kenya had never won the Olympic Marathon until Sammy Wanjiru brought home the gold medal from Beijing in 2008. He did so in classically brash Wanjiru style, 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 – 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 of Ethiopia, while establishing 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 assault in Beijing the marathon itself was brought to its knees. No longer a willful 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 athlete has laced up his or her racing shoes 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!”
12 thoughts on “REMEMBERING SAMMY WANJIRU FIVE YEARS AFTER”
Neglected to add to my earlier post that next to the story in the NYT on the dirty Olympic athletes at the past two summer games, there’s an article that talks about how difficult it is nowadays for employers to find prospective employees who can pass drug tests.
As an agemate literally from the same home town, his downfall was quite a bit of a shock
Here’s his post-victory interview at the 2010 Chicago Marathon.
Saw Sammy warming up before Chicago 2010. This was my first marathon and I was nervous to make it through the heat. I barely did. Was doing some strides before the race and there he was doing the same. He looked nervous too. Will never forget him and that day. Rest in peace Sammy.
Thanks for writing. Sammy’s manager claimed his client was only at 85% for Chicago 2010. But Sammy squeezed every drop possible out of himself that day.
I wrote a blog about Sammy. It was motivated by his Beijing performance and its effect on marathoning. It touches on others that followed. At the time of course we weren’t to know how the story ended 😔. https://runinbrum.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/the-day-the-marathon-changed/
Watched the last mile of the marathon again, Toni, and enjoyed it all over again. What a display of guts and gumption by both athletes. Kudos to them both! If Prefontaine would have had as many moves in the last mile of his 72 Olympic 5000 m. as Wanjiru did in that 2010 Chicago Marathon… then he might very well have beaten Viren! Don’t know where or how Kebede or Wanjiru found that many gear changes after 25 miles!?! Either way, it was a sad and tragic ending to Sammy’s life and athletic career. Dealing with success can be as difficult as dealing with failure… for many athletes. It is so easy to get led down the wrong road. “Choice… not chance… will probably determine our destiny!” It’s probably true that both Prefontaine and Wanjiru … made a bad choice or two…and paid the ultimate price! RIP to both these noble warriors. And, your reference to the end of the Spartacus movie is excellent and very moving. But, the fact that Kenya may have chosen a marathon team for Rio that was not composed of their fastest runners…. may be a tribute to the fact that lax testing has been tolerated or even encouraged in their country by their NGB… and many of their top runners are or have been suspect. Don’t they know that until there is major compliance with out of competition PED testing then all of their athletes will be cast in the same shadows…. dirty or clean. It is part of the tragedy of the situation that was allowed or encouraged to happen there. But, it is truly time to make things right… sooner than later! If the country and NGB does not fall in line… then the athletes will pay the biggest price…. especially the clean ones.
Sorry, hit the wrong button. This is Craig Virgin posting above.
Thanks for the reply. The truly great runners of Kenya have to be the ones who take ownership of this drug issue, because they are the ones who will be paying the price in doubt going forward.
Toni: With the NYT front page story today saying that 31 Olympic athletes from the 2008 and 2012 games may have competed in their respective events while using PEDs, I think it’s time for not only the “great runners” of Kenya but the elite Olympic caliber runners of every country to take ownership of the drug issue. Not that American athletes haven’t been vocal in their condemnation of fellow competitors who are dirty, but as we know, US athletes aren’t immune to the lure of using drugs to achieve their goals.
Using drugs for whatever reason: to relieve pain, to sleep, to enhance your sex life, to feel happy, to make you stop being nervous, to give you confidence, to make you high and to improve your athletic performance is, unfortunately, what far too many humans accept as permissible behavior.
I fear that with all the news that has been coming out recently regarding doped athletes at both summer and winter games, that the games themselves have lost their allure. Could we be witness to the end of the Olympic games in the not-too-distant future? It wouldn’t surprise me if that turns out to be true.
What did Pogo say: “We have met the enemy and he is us?” We humans certainly seem to be our own worst enemies, don’t we?
Watch and be inspired by the final minutes of Sammy Wanjiru’s epic victory at the 2010 Chicago Marathon. The commentators (who you no doubt will recognize) were yelling themselves hoarse with excitement.
Six months later Wanjiru was dead.