I was headed to bed last night when I came across Professor Sean Hartnett’s Facebook tribute to the great Kenyan marathon runner Sammy Wanjiru, who passed on this May 15th date in 2011.
The legendary 2008 Olympic Marathon champion, Kenya’s first Olympic Marathon gold medalist, 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.
Knowing that the sport Wanjiru practiced with such fierce resolve has suddenly been put into temporary lockdown by the Coronavirus led me to the following excerpt taken from my blog the day after Wanjiru’s death as I returned home from Oslo, Norway where I had attended the memorial service for another all-time great who had passed well before her time, Grete Waitz.
“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 marathon to equal it, but none that can surpass its mano a mano 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. But each time Kebede pulled free, 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 with only 600 meters left over a small bridge that crossed over a railroad yard, the moment 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 of Kenya’s excellence in Olympic distance competition from 1968 on, the nation had never produced an Olympic Marathon gold medalist until Sammy Wanjiru in Beijing 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 split-second of overweening disregard. Perhaps the polar legacies that Sammy etched so indelibly – as both a victor and a 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 potential ruin.
“I am Sammy Wanjiru!” they cry. “We are all Sammy Wanjiru!”