Mystery as Olympic gold medallist falls to his death

Police investigate whether Kenya's star marathon runner Wanjiru took his own life

Simon Akam
Tuesday 17 May 2011 00:00

Kenyan marathon runner Sammy Wanjiru – who won the gold medal with a spectacular performance at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – fell to his death at his home in the Kenyan town of Nyahururu late on Sunday, police said. He was 24 years old.

There was confusion yesterday over whether the athlete had died after falling from a first-floor balcony, or whether he had taken his own life.

Kenyan police said Wanjiru's death in the Rift Valley, north-west of the capital, Nairobi, took place after his wife, Triza Njeri, found him in bed with another woman. "Wanjiru came home with another woman friend at around 11.30pm and then when his wife came home and found them, she inquired who the lady was," area police chief Jasper Ombati said.

"They got into an argument. His wife locked them in the bedroom and ran off. He then jumped from the bedroom balcony," Ombati added. "He is not here to tell us what he was thinking when he jumped. We do not suspect foul play. In our estimation we think he wanted to stop his wife from leaving the compound."

However, Kenyan national police spokesman Eric Kiraithe offered a different interpretation of the athlete's death. "The fact of the matter is that Wanjiru committed suicide," he said.

Wanjiru was the youngest athlete to win four major marathons, winning the London event and the Chicago race twice alongside his triumph in Beijing. One of his victories in Chicago was the quickest marathon ever run in the United States. However, alongside his great sporting success, Wanjiru's personal life was troubled.

In December 2010, he was charged with threatening his wife with an AK-47 assault rife and wounding his security guard. The assault charge was dropped after he reconciled with his wife; however, proceedings for illegal possession of the weapon were ongoing.

Wanjiru also had a narrow escape in January when he rolled his car while swerving to avoid traffic.

Yesterday, a 25-year-old woman in the Kenyan town of Nakuru claimed to be Wanjiru's second wife and carrying his unborn child, according to the country's Capital FM radio station. "He had also promised to buy me a home and move me out of this rented house before the arrival of our baby," Judy Wambui said.

Despite his chequered personal life, reaction to Wanjiru's death was widespread and swift among other runners. "I am totally shocked of the news of the death of Sammy Wanjiru," world marathon record-holder Haile Gebrselassie said on his Twitter account. "Of course one wonders if we as an athletics family could have avoided this tragedy," he added.

Kenya's Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, also expressed condolences. "Wanjiru's loss is not only a loss to his family and friends but to Kenya as a whole and the entire world athletics fraternity," he said in a statement on the website of his party, the Orange Democratic Movement. "I wish to register sincere condolences to the family, friends and the whole sport fraternity for the loss."

Wanjiru moved to Japan in 2002 to attend school in Sendai, and there began to build a reputation as a runner. Winning the Rotterdam Half Marathon in 2005 in a world-record time was an important career stepping-stone.

His greatest triumph came in Beijing in 2008. The weather in the city was humid and hot, but the 21-year-old overcame the conditions to land the Olympic crown.

"Sammy Wanjiru was an accomplished runner who will be remembered for winning the first Olympic gold medal for Kenya in marathon and setting a new Olympic record in the process," the International Olympic Committee said in a statement. "Our thoughts are with his family and friends."

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