Monday, November 24, 2014

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The Turbulent Life and Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru

Last Sunday the Olympic gold medalist fell to his death, at the height of his success, but surrounded by rumours of violence, alcohol abuse and infidelity.
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"The body is coming", declared Sammy Wanjiru when he won the Chicago Marathon last October, overcoming the illness that had disrupted his training and surpassing his own expectations. For the Olympic gold medalist this victory was a triumphant return to form after a year dogged by knee problems which had seem him drop out of the London Marathon, held last month. He was widely seen as a favourite for the 2012 Olympics. Wanjiru's stock had never stood higher.

So how, six months later, did he die a violent and murky death at the age of 24, amid scandal and rumours of conspiracy? On Sunday night Wanjiru fell from a balcony to his death following a domestic dispute at his Nyahururu home. There are conflicting reports surrounding his death, but whatever the reality of events it now seems clear that even as his professional star was rising his home life was spiraling into chaos.

Wanijiru was an athlete of rare talent. After spending his teenage years in Japan, where he was a sucessful cross-country and 5,000 metre runner, he made his marathon debut at Fukuoka Marathon on December 2, 2007, setting a course record. In the 2008 Summer Olympics, Wanjiru won Kenya's first marathon gold medal in record time, the youngest marathon champion since 1932. In 2009 Wanjiru set course records in the Chicago and London marathons. The injuries and illness of 2010 seemed only a temporary setback, and great things continued to be expected of the Kenyan. However, while the international press lauded his athletic achievements he was drawing attention in his home country for his increasingly erratic behaviour.

In December 2010 Wanjiru was charged with attempting to kill his wife, Tereza Njeri, with an illegally owned Kalashnikov. He was also charged with wounding a security guard, who attempted to shelter the multi-millionaire's wife in an outbuilding of his large compound, and threatening their maid. He was described as having smashed a number of windows with the butt of the rifle in the 3am incident, in which another woman is also said to have been involved. His wife went on to withdraw her accusation of death threats, but Wanjiru would remain under investigation for possession of an illegal firearm. The relationship between the couple was turbulent. Njeri stated that she was seeking a porce, and made a claim to a portion of Wanjiru's wealth. Subsequently, the athlete and his wife were seen in public on Valentine's Day presenting themselves as happily reconciled. Meanwhile, Wanjiru was caught in a life threatening car crash, and rumours about his unpredictable temperament abounded. Reports after his death told of a man of extreme generosity who built his mother a palatial home and made many friends in Nyahururu with his real-estate investment, his down-to-earth behaviour and his habit of buying drinks in local bars. However, at the same time he was unpredictable and mercurial, picking fights and smashing glasses when he lost his temper.

It was amidst these reports of violence and marital discord that the news story broke that Wanjiru had been killed in a fall from a first floor balcony, a week before he was due to appear in court over his firearms charges, and after a day of drinking. The stories of his death were conflicting. Local police chief Jasper Ombati stated: "Wanjiru came home with another woman friend at around 11:30 p.m, and then when his wife came home and found them she inquired who the lady was ... They got into an argument. His wife locked them in the bedroom and ran off. He then jumped from the bedroom balcony." However, Eric Kiraithe, the national police spokesman, described Wanjiru's death as suicide. Two more women have since claimed to have been married to the athlete.

Wanjiru's agent, Frederico Rosa, did not accept the explanation of suicide. "I talked to him yesterday and the day before," he said, noting his training was proceeding smoothly. "It was going well and smoothly and he had no problem at all. … This I can guarantee, it was not a suicide at all." Jane Nduta, the woman who was with Wanjiru when he died, said that the runner was drunk when he fell and that he did not intend to kill himself. Wanjiru's mother was the next to speak out, claiming that the athlete had been murdered in his room before his fall, and denying that there was another woman in the compound, despite Nduta's testimony. The Kenyan police have announced that they will be launching an investigation into Wanjiru's death.

Whatever further details are uncovered it is clear that Wanjiru was a uniquely talented athlete, much loved in both his home country and among the athletic world. Marathon legend Haile Gebrselassie wrote: "I am totally shocked by the death of Sammy Wanjiru … Of course one wonders if we as an athletics family could have avoided this tragedy." The chaos of his private life will continue to make newspaper headlines, but it is as a runner that Wanjiru will ultimately be remembered.

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