The image burns brightly in the memory. On the morning of Sunday 24 August, 2008, Sammy Wanjiru breasted the blue and white tape stretched across the finish line in the Beijing National Stadium, then made the sign of the cross and dropped to his knees in supplication. Kenya's prayers had been answered.
Forty-eight years after Ethiopia had claimed its first Olympic marathon crown, courtesy of the barefooted Abebe Bikila in Rome, the other East African 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 history in style. He had run at world record pace until past halfway, surging clear of Morocco's Jaouad Gharib with four miles remaining and crossing the line in the "Bird's Nest" stadium in 2hr 06min 32sec.
Given the oppressively hot and humid conditions, it was a stunning time in what is traditionally a slow, tactical slog of a race for Olympic gold. It obliterated Carlos Lopes' Olympic record of 2:09:21, which had stood since the Los Angeles Games of 1984. As Wanjiru had already clocked a world record 58min 33sec for the half-marathon, it seemed only a matter of time before he would eclipse Haile Gebrselassie's world record figures for the full marathon distance, which then stood at 2:04:26 and which the Ethiopian lowered to 2:03:59 in Berlin the following month.
At 21, the matchstick Kenyan was apparently as big a phenomenon at the long-distance end of the running scale as the 22-year-old Usain Bolt was at the short end. Just how giant a figure a fully mature Sammy Wanjiru could have been – and according to Dave Bedford, the London Marathon race director and former 10,000 metres world record holder, he had already become "the greatest marathon runner we have ever seen" – we shall never know.
When the reigning Olympic marathon champion jumped to his death from a first-floor balcony of his luxury home in Nyahururu, 94 miles north-west of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in the early hours of Sunday morning, he added his name to the litany of great athletics talents who have been cut down in their relative youth. Like Lillian Board, Ivo Van Damme and Steve Prefontaine, the life and running times of Sammy Wanjiru will be freeze-framed in track and field history with a sepia tinge of tragedy.
In Wanjiru's case, the background to his tragedy is still unfolding. What was clear on Monday was that the 24-year-old had leapt to his death after his wife, Triza Njeri, had locked him in the master bedroom after arriving home to find him in bed with another woman. It was not clear whether Wanjiru had committed suicide or died accidentally.
Some of his friends and relatives said he was so troubled by his marriage that he had threatened to kill himself but his agent, Federico Rosa, insisted: "I am 100 per cent sure there was no suicide." Reports in Kenya yesterday suggested that Wanjiru had jumped off the balcony in an attempt to catch up with his wife, who had left in a rage after locking the bedroom and the front door, and smashed his head off the concreted ground some six metres below the balcony. A life of womanising, and not a little drinking, had apparently caught up with the great young marathon man.
At least Wanjiru scaled the peak of the Olympic podium before his life was cruelly cut short. Van Damme had two silver medals from the 1976 Games in Montreal, having finished runner-up to the Cuban Alberto Juantorena in the 800m and to John Walker of New Zealand in the 1500m, when he was killed in a car crash in the south of France in December that year. The tall, bearded Belgian was only 22 and could have eclipsed the middle-distance deeds of his contemporaries, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe, in the years to come.
Ovett, who finished fifth in the 800m final in Montreal and went on to win Olympic gold in the event ahead of Coe in Moscow in 1980, sent a moving letter of tribute to Athletics Weekly. "To win two silver medals at your first Olympics and at the age of 22 marks the greatness of the man who must surely have gone on to greater honours," Ovett wrote.
Van Damme's name lives on in the annual IAAF Diamond League meeting held at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, the Memorial Van Damme. Coe set a world mile record in the 1981 meeting, 3min 47.33sec.
Board, a prodigiously talented Londoner, was 19 when she won Olympic 400m silver at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. She was beaten in the last few strides by the fast-finishing Colette Besson of France. Board's time was supposed to have come at the Munich Olympics in 1972. She never made it. She died of cancer in a Munich clinic in December 1970, 13 days past her 22nd birthday.
Prefontaine led the Olympic 5,000m final in Munich before being run out of the medals by Lasse Viren, Mohammed Gammoudi and Britain's Ian Stewart. Prefontaine died in a car crash in 1975, aged 24. A distinctive figure, with his moustache and his sun-bleached mop of hair, he became an American sporting icon in death – the "James Dean of the track" was the subject of two feature films, Prefontaine and Without Limits.
Like the party animal known as Pre, it seems that Wanjiru was also determined to live his life without limits. Having learnt his distance-running trade at a specialist training camp-cum-high school at Sendai in Japan, he became a millionaire through his exploits in winning lucrative major-city marathons (London in 2009, Chicago in 2009 and 2010) and enjoyed a fast-living lifestyle, with a turbulent private life.
That much became evident to the world in December last year when Wanjiru was arrested and charged with threatening his wife and a maid with an AK-47 assault rifle. He was also charged with hitting a security guard with the butt of the weapon. Then there was a narrow escape from a high-speed car crash in January.
The threat and assault charges were dropped when Njeri kissed and made up with her husband in front of television cameras on Valentine's Day but Wanjiru was still facing a charge of illegal possession of a firearm; he had been due to appear in court on 23 May. And neighbours said yesterday that, despite the high-profile public "reconciliation", Wanjiru's wife and two children had moved out of the family home and were living in Nairobi.
After leaving his training camp in Eldoret on Saturday, Wanjiru reportedly spent a day and night carousing with friends at a series of drinking sessions in Nakuru before picking up a female companion, named yesterday as Jane Nduta, and taking her to his matrimonial home. The pair were in bed when Njeri arrived home unexpectedly.
Two other women claimed yesterday they were wives of Wanjiru – Judy Wambui, who said she was pregnant with his child, and Mary Wacera.
It seems the Sammy Wanjiru story will run for some time yet, but sadly – tragically – the man himself will not be running on the streets of London next year in defence of his Olympic crown. He will take that laurel wreath with him to his early grave.
Cut off in their prime
* The 5,000m runner Steve Prefontaine became an American icon – the 'James Dean of the track' – after his death in a car crash in 1975
* Belgium's Ivo van Damme was only 22 when he died in a car crash in the south of France in 1976 – he had already won two middle-distance Olympic silver medals
* The British 400m runner Lillian Board won Olympic silver in Mexico in 1968 aged just 19. She died of cancer in 1970
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