Sammy Wanjiru: Olympic champion tipped by many to be the greatest marathon runner ever seen

So great was his talent, so stunning was his Olympic marathon victory in Beijing less than three years ago, that since his death Sammy Wanjiru has been described as the greatest distance runner we have yet seen, and he has also been compared to figures from classical mythology.

More than one commentator remarked that Wanjiru was mercurial; comparisons with Icarus, who plummeted to his death after daring to fly too near to the sun, is tragically too apt for this Kenyan champion runner. On Sunday, the 24-year-old was involved in a domestic dispute at his home in Nyahururu, 100 miles north-west of Nairobi, in Kenya's Rift Valley, the birthplace and training ground of a legion of Olympic winners.

There are conflicting accounts of what happened on Sunday night. The police have ruled out foul play, though it is safe to say that Wanjiru and his estranged wife, Triza Njeri, had a fraught relationship. Charges brought against the runner in December for the attempted murder of his wife and an alleged attack on a security guard were dropped, but Wanjiru still faced a court appearance for possessing an AK-49 Kalashnikov assault rifle. Friends suggest Wanjiru had armed himself following two burglaries at the compound where he lived, targeted because of the wealth he had acquired following his lucrative marathon victories.

Police in Nyahururu have ruled out foul play, with some reports suggesting suicide. What is known is that Wanjiru jumped from a first-floor bedroom and died from his injuries.

Samuel Kamau Wanjiru was only 21 when he won his gold medal in Beijing. Extraordinarily, given Kenyan runners' dominance since the 1960s at all distances from 800 metres upwards, Wanjiru was the first from his country to take the Olympic marathon title. The manner of his doing so was even more remarkable.

Championship races are notoriously cagey, tactical affairs, lacking the pace-setters of the big-city races. Despite an early-morning start in the Chinese capital, the stifling 86 degree heat and 90 per cent humidity seemed certain to rule out fast times. Wanjiru, 5ft 4in tall and much younger than most of his rivals – and a novice at the event despite having finished runner-up in London earlier that year – attacked from the start, almost sprinting at points to unsettle the other runners.

For many observers, Wanjiru's reckless approach seemed to make inevitable his ultimate collapse, the latest victim of the perfidious 26-mile 385-yard distance. Yet he crossed the finishing line first in an Olympic record 2hr 6min 32sec, almost a minute clear of his nearest rival, with the bronze medallist almost a mile further back.

Wanjiru's Olympic victory is widely regarded as the greatest marathon performance. "Samuel was the greatest marathon runner that we have ever seen," said Dave Bedford, the London Marathon race director. "He was viewed by most people in the game as the person most likely to break Haile Gebrselassie's world record. He was a class athlete and a class human being."

In common with many Kenyan runners, Wanjiru's talent was spotted by a foreign agent when he was a teenager running cross-country. With his mother's blessing, the 15-year-old was packed off to Japan on a high school scholarship, where he was coached by Koichi Morishita, the 1992 Olympic marathon silver medal-winner.

Wanjiru's first world record came when he was 18, breaking the half-marathon mark. On the track later that summer in 2005, he shone when racing over 10,000 metres at the Golden League meeting in Brussels, his uninhibited running taking him to a world junior record of 26min 41.75sec.

In 2007, Wanjiru improved his half-marathon record by 20sec and also bettered the 20-kilometre world best. His marathon debut in December that year saw him delight his sponsors at Toyota as he won the classic Fukuoka race in 2:06:39.

Wanjiru returned to Kenya in 2008, and married Njeri. They have a son and a daughter. Managed and coached through a European agency established by an Italian doctor, Wanjiru was focused on the marathon. "I think I could run the marathon in under two hours," he said, more than once, without a hint of boastfulness.

After he set a London course record in April 2009 in 2:05:10, he followed up with a win in Chicago in the October that secured him a $500,000 jackpot as the winner of that year's international marathon series. He won in Chicago again last autumn in an epic contest after a week of illness, taking another half-million-dollar jackpot in the process. But injury, a car crash in the Kenyan bush and his worries over his court case forced his withdrawal from last month's London race.

The fame following his Olympictriumph brought Wanjiru prestige and wealth, but also pressures. He isnot the first Kenyan champion to have died in disturbing circumstances: Paul Kipkoech, the 1987 10,000m world champion; Benson Masya, a former half-marathon record-holder; and Richard Chelimo, a 10,000m world record-breaker, all died before their 30th birthdays.

Estranged from his wife, Wanjiru was only visiting Nyahururu for a meeting with his lawyer before his court date. The tragedy has left others questioning whether they could have done more to help. "One wonders if we as an athletics family could have avoided this tragedy," said Haile Gebrselassie, the holder of the marathon world record which was surely Wanjiru's destiny.

Samuel Kamau Wanjiru, athlete: born Kenya 10 November 1986; married 2008 Triza Njeri (one son, one daughter); died Nyahururu, Kenya 16 May 2011.

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