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One of my first conversations after hearing of the death of Sammy Wanjiru was with a very well placed, and observant sports marketing honcho. In speaking of the death of Sammy Wanjiru, and our own experiences knowing Henry Rono, we had noted some of the very tough stories about Kenyan athletes, who had reached for the sun, and faltered.
Then, I read this piece by Pat Butcher, off his GlobeRunner blog. Butcher’s writing is always top notch, but this column was especially thoughtful. Please pass it around, it say better than I could say, these great young athletes that we idolize pay a price for their greatness…..
In an age of sham celebrity, it makes it even more difficult
for mere mortals like us to imagine what life is like for an authentic
superstar, especially one who, like Sammy Wanjiru seemed to have a
tendency to run close to the edge in everything he did.
Well, he toppled over that edge on Sunday, whether involuntarily or
not, and Wanjiru, a man who managed excess so well in his short and
illustrious running career, already leaving us many indelible memories,
succumbed to excess in his private life, and paid the price with his
life. And we are all the poorer for it.
When, following reports of his arrest for brandishing a rifle and
threatening his wife and maid with it while smashing up his property,
followed by a high speed accident in an expensive vehicle, I recently
used the term ‘mercurial’ to differentiate between Wanjiru and one of
his more, shall we say, stable colleagues, I did not realise just how
that term and its historical use in the case of another marathoner –
more famous for his illustrious scientific career than his running –
would become so apposite in the way they both met their untimely end.
Alan Turing*, arguably the ‘inventor’ of the computer, and one of the
team that famously broke the Nazi war-time codes, was so into his
running that a colleague’s wife referred to him as ‘Mercury among
mortals’. In one of the most disgraceful episodes in British post-war
history, Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality and forced to take
‘corrective’ drugs; as a result of which he killed himself.
In what is now such a huge elite running population in Kenya, it is
statistically inevitable that will be some casualties. Although he has
survived to tell his sad tale of decline into alcoholism and menial
work, multi-world record Henry Rono might be said to be one of the first
A decade later, a world record holder while still a junior, Richard
Chelimo was equally unable to cope with fading celebrity; and became a
vastly overweight alcoholic. He was trying to get back to some semblance
of fitness when he died of a brain tumour before the age of 30.
Outside of Kenya, perhaps the saddest story about a man (it’s almost
always men) who could not live without his chosen sport is that of
Kokichi Tsuburaya. The Japanese was memorably passed by Basil Heatley of
the UK in the final 100 metres of the Olympic marathon in Tokyo 1964.
They were both a long way behind second time winner, the legendary Abebe
Bikila. But the disgrace of being relegated so publicly to the bronze
medal rankled with Tsuburaya who, despite injuries tried to train even
harder for the subsequent Games in Mexico City. But when it became clear
months before Mexico that he was not even going to qualify, he cut his
wrists, leaving the most poignant suicide note in athletics history. It
said simply, ‘cannot run anymore’.
The conflicting reasons – some have said suicide – given for
Wanjiru’s plunge to his death from the first floor balcony of his home
in Nyahururu (formerly Thompson’s Falls), some 150k north-west of
Nairobi, should not obscure the loss of a great champion.
Five wins in super-fast times out of seven marathons tells a tale of
its own. And his Beijing Olympic marathon victory, at 21, was already
extraordinary, given the high temperatures and the way that Wanjiru
ignored both them and the opposition. But, in a life in running that has
spanned the first four-minute mile up to Sunday evening’s terrific
face-off between Liu Xiang and David Oliver in Shanghai, I have never
seen anything like Wanjiru’s finish in the Chicago Marathon last Autumn.
The duel in the final kilometres between himself and world bronze
medallist, Tsegay Kebede, as they passed and re-passed each other,
seemed to have been decided in favour of the Ethiopian, as he built up
what should have been a winning lead with less than two kilometres to
run. But Wanjiru simply refused to be beaten. He clawed back the
deficit, and sailed to an unlikely and breath-taking victory.
Yet it was clear, reading between the sentences of conversations
about Wanjiru with his manager, Federico Rosa over the past year or so
that the Italian’s advice had little impact on the athlete. ‘Damage
limitation’ might have been invented for the young man. But Wanjiru
finally outstripped those limits.
For those of us who dreamed of being an Olympic winner, Wanjiru gave
us both that surrogate experience and the child-like wonder that comes
from contemplating his other truly immortal performances.
Those memories of Samuel Wanjiru, at least, will never die.
* link to previous piece on Turing – http://www.globerunner.org/index.php/09/in-praise-of-great-men/