Wanjiru: Reluctant superstar pulled down by a heart of gold

By Jackie Lebo

IN SUMMARY

I remember thinking how small he was, even by Kenyan runner standards, and how his ready smile and friendly manner did not match his reputation as a fearsome racer.

Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya runs on his way to win the men's elite group in the 2009 London Marathon April 26, 2009. REUTERS/ Eddie Keogh

I first met Samuel Wanjiru at the London Marathon in 2008. He was sitting with other Kenyan athletes in the hotel lobby and waiting for the bus to take them to the starting line.

The mood was relaxed, the athletes were discussing their manager’s tumultuous love life, and you would not have guessed that in a little while, the runners were going to do battle in one of the biggest races of the year.

Wanjiru was still based in Japan, but he had recently signed with Rosa & Associati, who represented some of the most well known Kenyan runners, which was an indication of what was to come.

Wanjiru had made his debut in the Fukuoka Marathon the previous December, winning in a world-class time of 2.06:39, and the athletics community greatly anticipated his first marathon majors race.

Runner’s World had reported that Wanjiru was to make his debut in New York the previous November, but Toyota, where he worked as part of the corporate jitsugyodan team, blocked it in favour of Fukuoka and his coach, Koichi Morishita, had publicly stated that he didn’t think Wanjiru should run in London or the Beijing Olympics that year.

Despite his coach’s statements, Wanjiru was in London, sitting with the group of athletes waiting for the bus to the starting line.

I remember thinking how small he was, even by Kenyan runner standards, and how his ready smile and friendly manner did not match his reputation as a fearsome racer. Martin Lel and Felix Limo had dominated London for the previous three years, but Wanjiru with his course record debut and half-marathon world record was seen as a threat.

Wanjiru lost in the final miles to the more experienced Lel. But in his defining moment – the blisteringly fast Beijing Olympic Marathon run in the heat and humidity – it was Wanjiru who defeated Lel, signifying the baton had passed to a new champion.

Wanjiru took the World Marathon Majors title from Lel and won it two years in a row with course records in London, Chicago in 2009 and one of the gutsiest performances in marathon history at the 2010 Chicago Marathon, where, not at 100% fitness, he battled Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede, coming from behind three times before eventually winning the race.

Wanjiru had established himself as a singular athlete in a country of great runners, and he seemed on course to becoming the greatest marathoner the world had ever seen – he publicly stated he would be running a sub 2 hour marathon in a few years, considered by some in sports science beyond the realm of human capability when news broke in December 2010 that he had stormed into the Nyahururu home he shared with his wife, Triza Njeri, and threatened her and the security guard with an assault rifle.

Wanjiru was charged with threatening to kill his wife and illegal possession of a firearm. They reconciled by February 2011, with Njeri and the security guard dropping the assault charges. Wanjiru also survived a serious car accident with only minor injuries.

He withdrew from that year’s London Marathon, citing injury, though many observers thought with all the legal and domestic troubles, his race preparations may not have gone according to plan.

By May, Wanjiru was back in training, this time in Eldoret, far from his troubled home environment. Wanjiru borrowed his manager’s car and said he was going to pay bills and meet his lawyer over the illegal firearm charge.

What happened next is unclear, but all versions of the events leading to Wanjiru’s death have him with a woman in his Nyahururu home when his wife walked in on them.

Possible homicide
In the ensuing altercation, Wanjiru fell from the first floor balcony in what the police called variably a suicide and an accident, with the government pathologist adding the possibility of homicide.

A few months after Wanjiru’s death, I met his friends Steven Maina and Collins Kihara (not their real names).

They are reluctant to talk, but they don’t want their friend remembered just as the man who threatened his wife with an AK-47. They want Wanjiru’s efforts at rehabilitation to come to light, his generosity and the forces that were pulling him in different directions in his efforts to please everybody.

They hope his story will serve as a cautionary tale for other marathoners who were coming up fast and making a lot of money very quickly.

“I don’t want it to be written that I was better than him,” Kihara said. “There is no one better or worse than him. I do not want to read this a few years from now and feel all the hurt flooding back. I do not want to cause his family pain.”

They tell me Wanjiru’s parentage and upbringing had affected him immensely, and he planned to rehabilitate his damaged image by being a role model for boys who were growing up without fathers.

Maina was a businessman in his early thirties who also ministered in his church. His brand of Christianity is not suited and stiff, it is modern, hip-hop influenced with loose fitting jeans, baseball cap and iPhone.

He grew up in Nyandarua around athletes but did not run himself. When one of his friends was recruited by a Japanese corporation and started making money, Maina coordinated his friend’s investments in Kenya.

A few years later, he was handling all manner of personal and financial matters for several Japan-based Kenyan athletes. Maina had handled a big media appearance for Wanjiru the previous year, and when the scandal erupted, Maina coordinated with the PR company that arranged the Valentine’s Day reconciliation between Wanjiru and his wife Njeri in front of the cameras.

The same PR company also transformed Wanjiru’s appearance in court – he was dressed in camouflage the first time, not exactly the image one wants to project while facing an illegal firearm charge, and wore a suit in subsequent appearances.

Kihara is an athlete who had known Wanjiru for more than a decade, since they were both teenagers running for a club in Nyahururu before Wanjiru’s breakthrough cross country performance and his subsequent recruitment by “the brokers” took him to Sendai Ikuei High School in Japan.

Kihara continued running in Kenya before signing with an American manager. After a few years, Kihara was invited to race in Japan and Wanjiru went and stayed with him at the hotel for a few days.

Wanjiru spoke of a difficult first few years in Japan: he chafed at the strictness of the culture, he was lonely and there was no one to talk to. Subsequently, every time Kihara travelled to Japan to race, Wanjiru went to stay with him.

Despite the difficulties adjusting to the culture, Wanjiru’s athletic career flourished, winning the high school ekiden with the Sendai team and finding employment with Toyota immediately after high school and setting course records in corporate ekiden races. He also set a world junior record in the 10,000 m and broke the half-marathon world record twice.

After his great marathon debut and second place finish in the London Marathon, Wanjiru was ready for an ambitious marathon career without the restrictions Toyota’s jitsugyodan team placed on him. He had also started a family with Triza Njeri and they had a young daughter, and with Japan’s 180 day residency rule, he would have to be away from his family for long periods of time.

In July 2008, Wanjiru resigned from Toyota. He had been living and training with Kihara in Ngong in preparation for the Beijing Olympics.

“Did he train all out like the way he raced?” I ask Kihara.

“He trained hard, but he listened to his body. If he was supposed to go for 38 K and he felt he couldn’t go on after 20, he stopped and tried again at the next session.” On Saturdays, after the long run, Wanjiru and Kihara would go to a nearby bar and Wanjiru would have two beers.

Kihara didn’t drink – he just sat there, waiting, sometimes having a soda, while Wanjiru had his two beers. After the two beers, they would leave. As the Olympics approached, most athletics observers I spoke to picked Wanjiru to win, citing his experience training and competing in Asia, but even they were surprised by just how decisive the win was.

“Sammy’s contribution to athletics was that he showed people you can run hard in championships, even without pacemakers,” says Kihara.

Go at the gun

“Before Beijing, he told us ‘nitaenda na bunduki.’ (I will go at the gun.)” Maina laughs. “And he did just that.”

Before that, championship marathons were tactical affairs. The previous Olympic record, run 24 years before at the 1984 Los Angeles games, was almost three minutes slower. The year after Wanjiru’s Beijing win, Abel Kirui set a new championship record with a time of 2:06:54 at the World Championships in Berlin.

Wanjiru returned from Beijing to a huge homecoming celebration organized by a group of friends and family that included Kihara and Maina. A smiling and tuxedoed Wanjiru capped a great year by winning the SOYA award, the most prestigious award given to Kenyan athletes.

In a beautiful and touching moment, Wanjiru went on stage with his young daughter to accept the award. The win in Beijing, and the style of the win, meant that Wanjiru was now likely the most sought after marathon runner in the world, and his appearance fees would go up considerably.

Though appearance fees were not publicly announced, a veteran journalist familiar with marathon fee structures estimated that Wanjiru could command at least a quarter million dollars just to show up at a race, if not more.

After the celebrations ended, Wanjiru and Kihara returned to Ngong to resume training. Only now there was an incessant stream of knocks on their door and everyone wanted something, from the businessmen with deals for him to invest in, to the journalists looking for a story, the supplicants looking all manner of money and favours, and the women.

“He did not look for women. They came to him. There was a lot of temptation,” Maina says. “Who are you to think that you could have fared any better?”

Apparently, Wanjiru could not say no to people, and soon some of the supplicants were living with them as they waited for the favours they had requested to be granted. The house became increasingly crowded and noisy and Kihara could not focus on training. “Do they have to be here?” Kihara asked Wanjiru. “Can’t you help them from afar?”

New world order

Wanjiru moved out and got his own place in Ngong. He remained friends with Kihara, consulting and training together, but they did not have the same closeness as before. When Wanjiru had lived in Japan, his place in the structured hierarchical system and the strict behavioural code did not leave any room for his excesses.

When he moved to Kenya, Kihara acted as the brakes on the party train, but now that he was on his own, and because of his stature as an elite athlete, he was at the top of the hierarchy in this new world order.

There was no one to report to, but also no one to curb his excesses. Wanjiru was known for his proclivity to let loose in the off-season. He would ask the bar owner to lock the doors so everyone inside could drink on his bill – a tradition in Kenya when a regular had a windfall, such as during harvest time – and thought nothing of spending fifty thousand shillings in one night.

Those who wanted to take advantage of his generosity made their way into his inner circle, but taking care of his entourage was also a way for Wanjiru to show his stature.

Sometimes, when Wanjiru felt that things were spinning out of control, he went to Kihara and said that he wanted to stop. Kihara would call Maina in his capacity as a church minister to counsel Wanjiru.

“It is hard to tell someone what to do when they are at the top of their career,” says Maina. Maina’s voice was coming in a flood of other voices and it was difficult to be heard.

They would sit and agree on something, only for Wanjiru to discard the advice a short while after. Since he was excelling in other areas of his life, it was easy for him to do what he felt like once the bad moment had passed and he had regained a semblance of balance. “Money itself is not evil,” says Maina. “It is when it finds itself without a plan that it can be diverted for evil purposes. If you had planned to buy a plot for twenty million, and the money comes in and you buy the plot and you have no money left, there is not much left to go and cause trouble. It is when twenty million comes in and you had not planned for it. It causes a money traffic jam then it looks like you have too much money to play with.”

In those moments when Wanjiru pulled back from the partying lifestyle, the people getting free things and free drinks did not let go easily.

“They fought for his time, they called him constantly, because they knew they would lose if he left,” says Kihara. Kihara and Maina refuse to comment on the circumstances surrounding Wanjiru’s death. Kihara also adamantly refuses to talk about Wanjiru’s relationship with his mother.

“There are things he shared with me that I can never tell anyone,” he says. “As there are things that I shared with him that he would have never repeated.”

It was Wanjiru’s mother who had first made allegations that her son’s death was not an accident, nor was it a suicide. Hannah Wanjiru claimed to have found blood in Wanjiru’s bedroom when she first got to the house, which was inconsistent with the scenario of Wanjiru falling to his death from the balcony. She claimed her daughter-in-law had cleaned the blood by the time the police arrived at the scene.

Hannah Wanjiru then obtained a court injunction blocking the burial of her son. The intense friction between Hannah Wanjiru and her daughter-in-law exploded into the public sphere and it soon became apparent that the tension had been simmering for a long time. Hannah Wanjiru produced a woman whom she called Sammy’s real wife, complete with seven-month-old baby.

In rural Kenya and pockets where polygamy still persisted, if your parents didn’t like your wife or they felt shut out by her, they would get you another one through whom they could wield a measure of influence in your life. When elders including Wanjiru’s maternal grandfather met at Wanjiru’s farm in Suera to mark his final resting place, Hannah Wanjiru disrupted the gathering. Brandishing a panga, she lunged at her father, saying, “My son is not a dog to be buried anyhow.” She injured two people before she was arrested by the police.

With all her grief filled mania, Hannah Wanjiru’s allegations seemed to be borne out by the government pathologist’s report, which said it was possible the injuries to the back of Wanjiru’s head were inflicted by a blunt object, opening up the possibility of homicide. As the injunction blocking her son’s burial neared expiry, Hannah Wanjiru’s lawyers filed for an extension which was declined.

The Judge saw no reason Wanjiru could not be buried, though, because of what the government pathologist had uncovered, he ordered an inquest to be opened into Wanjiru’s death.

Thousands attended the requiem mass at Nyahururu Stadium. The crowd was frisked before entering the stadium and a large contingent of riot police, administration police and plain clothes officers kept order. Eight policemen carried the casket draped in the blue police flag. For Wanjiru ran for the police team: he was a corporal in the Criminal Investigations Department.

The police pulled out all the stops – there was a 21 gun salute and a mournful trumpet played. Hannah Wanjiru was notably absent from the funeral, saying she could not bear to bury her son yet the cause of death had not been established.

Jackie Lebo writes for The Content House on the Saturday Nation on 10th May 2013 ( www.nation.co.ke )