Wanjiru makes history for Kenya

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The Independent Online

As Sammy Wanjiru crossed the finish line in the Beijing National Stadium yesterday, he made the sign of the cross and dropped to his knees. Kenya's prayers had finally been answered.

Forty-eight years after Ethiopia claimed their first Olympic marathon title, courtesy of the barefooted Abebe Bikila in Rome, East Africa's other superpower of distance running had a champion of the classic 26.2 mile event to acclaim.

Like Bikila before him, Wanjiru claimed his place in the history books in style. Running at world record pace until past halfway, the 21-year-old made his decisive move with four miles remaining, surging clear of Morocco's Jaouad Gharib and crossing the line in 2hr 6min 32sec.

Given the oppressively hot and humid conditions, it was a stunning time in what is traditionally a slow, tactical race. It obliterated Carlos Lopes's Olympic record of 2:09:21, which had stood since the Los Angeles Games of 1984.

It was a sweet occasion for Wanjiru's Japanese coach, Koichi Morishita. He had Olympic marathon gold in his sights in Barcelona in 1992 until he was overtaken on the steep climb up to Montjuic Stadium and was forced to settle for silver.

Wanjiru, holder of the world half marathon record, has spent much of the past six years living in Japan. He first went there to study at a high school in Sendai, but he still spends part of each year training in Kenya, where yesterday's success in the green, red and black vest of his homeland was of huge national significance.

At the turn of the year, Kenya's running community was caught up in the tribal violence which erupted in the wake of the country's disputed general election. Lucas Sang, an Olympian in 1988, was hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob. Luke Kibet, winner of the marathon at the World Championships in Osaka last summer, was struck by stones and knocked unconscious while attending to a man who was bleeding from shotgun wounds during a riot in Eldoret.

Kibet escaped with a wound that required twelve stitches. He was up with the lead group until just before halfway yesterday but dropped out after 18 miles, suffering from stomach cramps. Still, he made it to Beijing and was part of a Kenyan team that finished the Games celebrating not just a momentous marathon win but also the country's largest haul of medals from an Olympic athletics programme: five golds, five silvers and five bronzes.

"In Kenya this year we had a problem about the election," Wanjiru reflected. "Now we have a good peace in Kenya. Today I am very happy to be the winner. From 1968 Kenya could not get the gold medal in the marathon. In 2008, it is history for my country in the marathon."

Behind the victorious Kenyan yesterday, there was silver for Gharib, in 2:07:16, and bronze for Tsegay Kedebe of Ethiopia, in 2:10:00.

Britain's sole representative, Dan Robinson, picked his way through the field from 58th at halfway to 24th at the finish, which he reached in 2:16:14. The Gloucestershire man then set off on another race: to get back to Nailsworth before his wife, Jess, gave birth to their first child. "She's pretty confident of holding on," Robinson said. "All the doctors tell me nature's a wonderful thing, and that once I get back she'll probably have it straight away."

In the final athletics session in the Bird's Nest on Saturday, a long 44-year wait ended for Belgium with the delivery of a gold medal in the women's high jump. It came courtesy of Tia Hellebaut, who beat the Croatian favourite Blanka Vlasic on the countback rule, both women having cleared 2.05m. It was Belgium's first Olympic athletics gold since Gaston Roelants won the steeplechase in Tokyo in 1964.

There was also a second gold in seven days for Kenenisa Bekele. The little Ethiopian added the 5,000m title to the 10,000m crown, completing a men's distance track double last achieved in 1980.