He was described by London Marathon race director David Bedford as the greatest male marathon runner the world has ever seen but Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru was unable to outrun his turbulent private life.
Unfulfilled talent: Sammy Wanjiru celebrates winning the gold during the men's marathon at the Beijing 2008 Olympics Photo: PA
By Simon Hart 5:47PM BST 16 May 2011
The athletics world was in shock on Monday after the 24 year-old, who became the first Kenyan to win an Olympic marathon in Beijing three years ago, leapt to his death from a first-floor balcony at his luxury house in the Rift Valley town of Nyahururu.
According to regional police chief Jaspher Ombati, Wanjiru’s wife, Triza Njeri, had returned home unexpectedly in the early hours to discover her husband in bed with another woman. It is understood she locked the pair inside and left the house.
Minutes later Wanjiru was dead after jumping from a balcony, plunging six metres and apparently striking his head on the concrete floor below.
“It is not yet clear whether it was a suicide or if he jumped out of rage, or what caused him to fall to the ground,” Ombati said.
“He jumped from his first-floor balcony to the ground. He was bleeding from the nose and the mouth, and may have suffered internal injuries.”
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Wanjiru’s Italian agent, Federico Rosa, told CNN World Sport on Monday, that he was “100 per cent certain” that the athlete had not committed suicide, insisting that he had seemed happy and relaxed when he spoke to him over the weekend.
Investigations into the circumstances of his death were continuing on Monday as police interviewed Njeri and Wanjiru’s unnamed female companion.
But the athlete was no stranger to domestic bust-ups, having been charged with the attempted murder of Njeri in December after allegedly assaulting her and threatening to kill her with an AK-47 assault rifle.
The pair were later reconciled and the allegations were withdrawn, as was a charge of wounding a security guard by hitting him in the face with the butt of the rifle. However, a charge of illegal possession of a firearm was still outstanding and was due to be heard next week.
To add to Wanjiru’s problems, he had also been involved in a car accident on the Nairobi-Nyahururu road in January, rolling his four-wheel drive vehicle several times while trying to avoid an oncoming truck. He was forced to pull out of last month’s Virgin London Marathon, citing a knee injury.
Wanjiru’s tempestuous private life was at odds with the polite, mild-mannered figure he cut during his media appearances at the big-city marathons.
But during races he was an aggressive competitor, launching attack after attack to try to break the resolve of his opponents. His greatest moment came in Beijing, when he ran away from his rivals to claim the gold medal in 2hr 06min 32sec — a remarkable time given the absence of pacemakers and the intense heat and humidity in the Chinese capital.
Many observers believed it was only a matter of time before he lowered Haile Gebrselassie’s world record of 2-03-59. Their showdown on the streets of London next year was set to be one of the highlights of the 2012 Games.
The year after his Olympic victory, Wanjiru won the London Marathon in what was then a course record of 2-05-10, and he also triumphed twice in Chicago, the last time in a thrilling duel with Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede in October.
His big-city successes brought him two overall World Marathon Majors titles, earning him an extra million dollars in prize money.
Bedford said Wanjiru’s death was a sad day for London — the Kenyan also finished runner-up in the capital in 2008 — and promised to create a lasting memorial to honour his contribution to the event.
“Like the rest of the world of athletics, and in particular marathon running, I am absolutely shocked to the core,” said Bedford.
“Samuel was, in my opinion, the greatest marathon runner that we have ever seen. That’s based on his amazing performance at the Olympics but also the fact that he then went on to win two Chicago Marathons and one London Marathon.
“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. He had a great amount of fun in his character and was kind and generous with his time. He will be sadly missed.”
Gebrselassie, winner of Sunday’s Bupa Great Manchester Run, posted several tweets expressing his sadness at his young rival’s death. “I am totally shocked by the death of Sammy Wanjiru,” he wrote, adding: “Of course one wonders if we as an athletics family could have avoided this tragedy.”
In a statement, Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga said: “Wanjiru’s death is not only a loss to his family and friends but to Kenya as a whole and the entire world athletics fraternity.
“As an athletics nation, we looked forward to a sterling performance in the Olympic Games in London next year. Mr Wanjiru was one of our sure bets for gold in the contest. His death is therefore a big blow to our dreams.”