x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Olympic marathon champion Wanjiru dies in fall

Sammy Wanjiru died overnight from head injuries after falling from the second floor of his home after an alleged argument row his wife.

Sammy Wanjiru celebrating winning the marathon at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He died today aged 24.
Sammy Wanjiru celebrating winning the marathon at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He died today aged 24.

NAIROBI // Sammy Wanjiru, the Kenyan Olympic marathon champion, died overnight from head injuries at the age of 24 after falling from the second floor of his home in the town of Nyahururu, according to police in the country.

"He fell from the balcony of his home after a row with his wife. We found him lying on the veranda with a broken skull," said Jasper Ombati, a police officer in the region.

Wanjiru made history at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing when his winning time of 2hrs 6mins and 32secs destroyed the 24-year-old Olympic record of 2:09:21 set in 1984 by Carlos Lopes of Portugal. It gave Kenya their first marathon gold medal at the Olympics.

After Beijing, Wanjiru won the London marathon in 2009 and Chicago in 2009 and 2010.

Wanjiru started his running career young, leaving for Japan as a teenager after winning a scholarship for Sendai High School. He became immensely popular in what was for a while his country of adoption.

Prior to Japan he trained with Robert Kioni, who remembers him as "so dedicated to athletics."

Over the past several months however, Wanjiru, who leaves behind one daughter, appeared to have entered a downhill spiral, making headlines more for his marital problems and court appearances than for his sporting achievements.

"Wanjiru had issues like any other person but he did not deserve to die the way he has died," said his current coach, Claudio Berardelli.

Former coach Kioni said the athlete "became a totally different man after winning the gold medal in Beijing," and cited Wanjiru's "self-destructive problems, ranging from the excessive drinking to having affairs."

"He associated with the wrong kind of people and even avoided all contact with me because he was told I was not a worthy coach," Kioni added.

Wanjiru was involved in a serious car crash in January and was scheduled to reappear before a Nyahururu court next Monday, accused of possession of an unlicensed firearm.

He had earlier been charged with threatening to kill his wife but she subsequently withdrew the charges, according to Kenyan television after a Valentine's Day outing.

Police officers said Wanjiru came home after an evening in a local bar, accompanied by a woman. As the two entered the house they found Wanjiru's wife Trizah Njeri Kamau who demanded to know why the woman was there, prompting a bitter argument.

In the ensuing melee, Wanjiru's wife is reported to have locked the main door and headed to the police station to report the matter, prompting Wanjiru to jump off the balcony to try to stop her from going.

Nyahururu Police chief Jasper Ombati said the woman was detained briefly for questioning but is now free.

"We have released her because after interrogations, we have established that she is just an innocent woman," he said.

Ombati said the investigation is continuing.

In the history of Olympic marathon running, Wanjiru at 21, ranks as the second-youngest winner ever, after the Argentine Juan Carlos Zabala who won at the age of 20 in Los Angeles in 1932.

"As an athletics nation, we looked forward to a sterling performance in the Olympic Games in London next year," Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister, said in a statement.

"Mr Wanjiru was one of our sure bets for gold in the upcoming contest. His death is therefore a big blow to our dreams."

Fellow athletes expressed their shock at Wanjiru's death.

Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian two-time Olympic and multiple world champion, said on Twitter: "I am totally shocked of the news of the death of Sammy Wanjiru. Of course one wonders if we as an athletics family could have avoided this tragedy. My thoughts are with his family and all his friends and colleagues."

Another Ethiopian hero, Kenenisa Bekele, said: "I looked up to him and saw him as a great marathon athlete. I was looking forward to meeting him in the future at the marathon distance and to race against him."