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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'