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The Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru

Before Sunday's Chicago Marathon, a look at the life of a champion runner

When he toed the starting line at last year’s Chicago Marathon, Sammy Wanjiru didn’t look good. Sure, he was the reigning champion in Chicago; in fact, he’d set the course record. He had an Olympic gold medal safely stashed at home. But past glory wasn’t much of a lift for Sammy these days. There were rumors that he wasn’t training hard, rumors that he was getting too comfortable with the lifestyle of a celebrity athlete. His own manager said Sammy wasn’t in shape. Sammy hadn’t finished his last two races before Chicago because of back and knee injuries. A stomach virus pulled him from a week of critical training shortly before Chicago. And joining him in this race were four other men who’d run marathons under 2:06 — which, in case you’re calculating, translates to a pace of under five minutes per mile for 26.1 26.2 miles. In a row.

Sammy might have been the most talented runner in the field, but it didn’t look like this would be his day.

However, the temperature on race day was far warmer than expected. Sammy has a reputation for flourishing in the heat. At the Beijing Games, on a day reaching 86 degrees, Sammy not only won gold, but he also set an Olympic record. In Chicago, the Kenyan raised eyebrows when he kept up with the lead pack. When he made it a two-man race by Mile 23 with Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia — the man who won the London race Sammy failed to finish — he impressed the gloomiest of naysayers. But even Sammy’s biggest supporters couldn’t predict what came next.

Despite visible pain, Sammy made it a duel with Kebede. One would surge ahead, then the other, and both seemed to be moving at close to a sprint. In the final half-mile, Sammy pulled away, steaming ahead in a kick that turned Kebede into nothing more than a memory. Sammy broke through the red ribbon at the finish line with a toothy grin cutting across his face, his arms spread as if they were wings, and his index fingers raised to sign “no. 1.” Time: 2:06.23 — faster than in Beijing. His manager, Federico Rosa, called it “the greatest marathon race I have ever seen, and the biggest surprise. It was a total shock.”

“Sammy proved his heart today,” boasted Carey Pinkowski, Chicago race director. Sammy himself carried his triumph with languid ease: “My ship is coming back,” he explained to reporters. He openly eyed the world record, then 2:03:59 and held by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. “The body is coming,” he promised.

Sammy was 23 years old. He had just become the youngest man to win four major world marathons. It would be the last victory of his life.

Here is what we know about the death of Sammy Wanjiru: It happened late in the early hours of May 15 at his posh home in Nyahururu, a Rift Valley town about 100 miles from Nairobi. Sammy fell from a second-story balcony — a drop of about 16 feet — and landed on the pavement outside. He lost consciousness. Hospital doctors could not revive him.

Here is the mystery: whether Sammy fell, jumped, or was pushed.

Sammy had been drinking that night after a day of training. He brought a woman named Jane Nduta home with him. Triza Njeri, Sammy’s wife, returned to find Sammy in bed with her. The couple quarreled before she locked Sammy and Jane upstairs, leaving them with no way out, and then Triza left the house. Minutes later, Sammy dropped from the balcony. But why did he fall?

“The fact of the matter is that Wanjiru committed suicide,” Eric Kiraithe, a national police spokesman, told the Associated Press. Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere seconded this account in initial reports. The last six months had been personally tumultuous for Sammy, and he’d been known to send text messages threatening suicide. Jasper Ombati, the local police chief, suggested to Reuters that it was unclear whether “it was a suicide or if he jumped out of rage, or what caused him to fall to the ground.”

But then, in an AP account, Ombati said that it was probably an accident.

“They got into an argument,” he said. “His wife locked them in the bedroom and ran off. He then jumped from the bedroom balcony. He is not here to tell us what he was thinking when he jumped. We do not suspect foul play. In our estimation, he wanted to stop his wife from leaving the compound.”

Both Triza Njeri and Jane Nduta recorded statements for the police, which don’t appear to be publicly available. The postmortem investigation concluded that Sammy died from a blunt injury to his head that could have been caused by the impact on the ground — or by being hit with a heavy object. It’s worth noting that Sammy was only 5-foot-4 and quite slim. Following the inconclusive autopsy, which Sammy’s family was invited to witness, chief government pathologist Dr. Moses Njue voiced the perplexities of the case, noting that Sammy’s body also had injuries on the palms and knees.

“He landed on his legs and supported himself with his hands. Where did the injury on the back [of the head] come from? We could turn into fools if we don’t ask ourselves this question,” Dr. Njue said.

Hannah Wanjiru, Sammy’s mother, believes her daughter-in-law murdered Sammy to gain his property. Not more than a day after his death, Hannah suggested that Sammy had been killed in his bedroom, and then dropped from the balcony to disguise a crime. “I am sickly, but even if I fall from that height I will not die. I will only get a dislocation,” she said.

But police exonerated Triza, Nduta, and the compound’s security guard early in the investigation, indicating that none of them were involved in an alleged murder.

Hannah didn’t attend the burial in June — nearly four weeks after her son’s death, and accompanied by a 21-gun salute — because she suspected “fishy” dealings. In a courtroom in August, Hannah declared that there had not been adequate investigation into murder. This, she said, was not merely a hasty oversight.

“I believe my daughter-in-law knows what caused the death of my son,” she said. “Ask her, why did she hasten his burial? Was it not to conceal the truth? For now, my interest is to know what killed my son, and I would be glad if they told me.”

Hannah was in court for attacking and seriously injuring Triza’s brother in early June. She was also charged for creating a disturbance when she raged at a grave-making ceremony, leaving two people injured. She also threatened to cut Triza with a panga (machete).

Sammy had a history of horrific violence against Triza. About three months after his win in Chicago, Sammy threatened his wife and maid with an AK-47. He was also charged with hitting a security guard at his estate with the butt of the firearm. Rosa said Sammy had firearms for self-protection: He’d been targeted for his wealth, threatened with kidnapping, and twice attacked in his home by bandits. Sammy said he was framed, he was released shortly after his arrest, and the assault charges were eventually dropped. A divorce loomed, but then Triza and Sammy had a much-publicized Valentine’s Day date in Nairobi. “We are still young and we have resolved that nobody should come between us,” explained Triza, who works as a beautician. “It was on Monday during our Valentine’s that we cemented our marriage even further.”

Meanwhile, a third woman, Judy Wambui, announced after Sammy’s death that she was five months pregnant with his child. Judy asked a Nakuru court to recognize her as Sammy’s second wife, which would allow her to participate in his burial. It would also give her the right to have samples of Sammy’s corpse extracted so that a paternity test would confirm that her child was his. She was granted this right. The child was born in August and named Master Samuel Jonnes Kamau after Kenya’s star runner.

To date, no official ruling has been made about the cause of Sammy Wanjiru’s death.

In Kenya, there are many runners and few joggers.1 In the West, it’s the other way around — few elites are distinguished from the middle-class masses that lace up for weight loss, hometown 5Ks, or runs down country roads with the family dog setting the pace. While fitness culture is broadly marketed in the West, Kenyans run in competitions and in training camps. Hobbyists are hardly trotting along Nairobi’s hectic streets.

Kenya’s reputation as the global epicenter of running is a rather new one. The country itself is not yet 50 years old. A Kenyan — indeed, an African — did not win the Boston Marathon until 1988, when Ibrahim Hussein triumphed in a photo-finish. The U.S. and Europe dominated distance running in the 1970s, and Kenya’s boycott of the 1976 and 1980 Olympics to protest apartheid South Africa’s participation may have slowed the development of Kenya’s runners.

But early on, there were glimpses of fire. In the 1968 Olympics, Kipchoge Keino flew to first place in the 1,500, winning by 20 meters. It’s the largest margin of victory in the history of the event and earned Kenya its first gold medal in any competition. This is true despite Keino’s unusual morning on race day — when his bus got knotted in Mexico City traffic, he ran the final two miles to the stadium, to the starting line, and to the history books.

Today, Kenya’s dominance is plain. Kenyans have won 18 of the 23 Boston marathons since Hussein’s win. Geoffrey Mutai, this year’s champion, clocked a numbing time of 2:03.02 that would’ve set a world record if the course qualified for the books. Two weeks ago, Patrick Makau of Kenya officially broke the record with a 2:03:38 time in Berlin. Meanwhile, Kenyan women have won eight of the past 12 Boston marathons. Kenyans won seven of the past eight men’s marathons in London; they were the top three finishers in the men’s race this year, and the first and third finishers in the women’s race. Mary Keitany holds world records in the half-marathon, 12K, 20K, and 25K races; she has won nearly every marathon and half-marathon she’s run since 2006. Once, she came in second.

The path from small Kenyan towns to the finish line of the world’s preeminent races has become streamlined. Ambitious young runners join training camps in Iten or Eldoret. They jockey for a place at a school with a celebrated running program. And they try to catch the eye of managers lurking along the training grounds.

Running is an accessible sport; nearly no equipment or money is required to get started. It’s also an opportunity to attain dizzying wealth in a country where the average annual income is less than $800 a year. At last year’s Chicago Marathon, Sammy Wanjiru collected $115,000 in time and prize bonuses. Success comes young for runners — and particularly for athletes from developing nations, it brings with it a tricky brew of pressure, danger, and profound possibilities.

“It’s like a trial every day,” said Matthew Turnbull, elite athlete coordinator for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series and a recruiter in East Africa. “It often gets very, very competitive over there, and not just from the athlete’s point of view. Everyone’s looking for the next Sammy Wanjiru. Every athlete thinks it’s him. Every manager thinks he’s got him.”

In a country full of world-class distance runners, Sammy Wanjiru was special. Sam Chelanga met him once. He was a guy about his age, another runner from the Rift Valley, and they were both training in Kenya’s Ngong Hills. This guy, though, had his face on the posters.

Chelanga was new to running; instead of racing at his Nairobi high school, he played table tennis. Now that he was out in the hills to train, Sammy Wanjiru impressed him. “I always thought, I want to be that guy. He goes out and wins. He’s so determined.” As Sammy’s success grew, Chelanga heard stories about him: “He helped people in his town. After a workout, he’d take others to a restaurant and pick up the bill of 20,000 Kenyan shillings. He’d say, ‘Hey, I’ll handle this.'”

Sammy made it a habit to use his winnings to support Kenyans. He paid secondary school fees for several children, and particularly wanted to support the education of orphans from the Katana slum. He helped out young athletes who needed funds to travel abroad for races. He donated the $25,000 bonus he earned from shattering the half-marathon world record to the Nyahururu children’s home, where his mother works. Giving became a secondary source of fame.

This was a surprising trajectory for the boy once known as Samuel Kamau, raised on an impoverished farm by his single mother. Sammy changed his name to honor his mother, Hannah Wanjiru; he never had a relationship with his father. Sammy ran 12 miles to and from school each day, but when his family could no longer afford tuition, Sammy dropped out. He was 12 years old. He had never owned a pair of shoes. When he was 15, Sammy caught the eye of a Japanese scout when he placed third in a cross country race in Nairobi. It was his first visit to the capital city. Soon, Sammy found himself back in school — this time in Sendai, Japan. He ran cross country there and learned to speak perfect Japanese. He got a sponsorship from Toyota. Shortly after graduation, when he was 18, Sammy broke the world’s half-marathon record in Rotterdam — 59:16. Two years later, in 2007, he improved this to 58:33. That same year, he transitioned to full marathons. He debuted in Fukuoka, where he won and set a course record. A year later, he was in Beijing.

As for Chelanga, he received a sports scholarship that brought him to the United States. At Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded by Jerry Falwell, he specialized in the 5K and 10K. He set the NCAA record for the 10,000 with a time of 27:08:39, and won the 2009 NCAA cross country championship outright. “When I got to college, I realized I had potential,” said Chelanga, now 26 and training in Portland with Nike-sponsored athletes. Sammy, too, had a Nike contract. “OK, I need to take this serious. This could change my life.”

With his degree and a future in professional running laid before him, Chelanga hoped to spend time with Sammy when he returned to Kenya. But not two days after Chelanga graduated, Sammy Wanjiru died.

When news of Sammy Wanjiru’s death hit Kenya’s newspapers, it cued national grieving for a hero — the first Kenyan to win the Olympic marathon. But in letters to the editor and street-corner conversations, another narrative emerged: one about a young man who acquired too much fame and fortune too soon. A talent with no one to guide him through celebrity and wealth — or to steer him away from the people who would take advantage of him.

“What if you were in the same shoes as Samuel and everyone wants to be with you if they want money or agents, or girls want to go with you?” asked Chelanga. “I think that’s what caught him off guard. Greedy people come up to him. They brought him down.”

Chelanga added that Kenyan culture made athletes celebrities and encouraged them to live glamorous, free-spending lifestyles that supported neither their careers nor their well-being. (Nor did it seem to discourage domestic abuse.) Chelanga believes that Sammy clung to this way of life to signify things were different from the poverty he came from. “He says, ‘I see I come a long way.’ He didn’t want to go back.”

Kenne Mwikya, a well-known Nairobi blogger, was struck by how news of Sammy fit popular storylines. “Was he not rich, young, talented and at the height of his prominent athletic career?” Mwikya writes in an unpublished essay. “Was he not married with children, did he not invoke the rags to riches story that we Kenyans love so much?”

When Turnbull was in Kenya a week after Sammy died, Sammy’s family was asking about money. But, Turnbull said, Sammy had used his millions to build a house for his mother, a house for his wife and family. He built schools. He bought land. Two family friends insisted that there was money hidden away, that someone was sneaking off with the rightful inheritances of others. “So-called friends,” Turnbull called them. “Still trying to get whatever they can.” In fact, there was no secret money; bank transactions prove what Sammy spent his millions on and reveal little of it left over. “Of course, he thought he’d go on earning,” Turnbull said. “Sammy didn’t think he’d die at 24.”

In developing nations, it has become popular to use sports as a tool for humanitarianism. Sports Against Poverty is a particularly literal manifestation. It partners athletes “with education” in Central East Africa so that children have “opportunities for advancement, both on and off the field.” The UN declared 2005 the Year of Sport and Physical Education with explicit overtures on the potential of sports to promote peace. LoveFútbol builds soccer fields in poor communities to encourage a game that has the “power to transform people and places.” Right to Play International works in “the most disadvantaged areas of the world,” using sports to “create social change in communities affected by war, poverty, and disease.”

Sammy Wanjiru became an example of a more direct form of development through sports. Indeed, there are decidedly concrete benefits for communities when one of their own breaks through. Kenyan runners regularly remit winnings to their families, or, like Sammy, build schools, build apartment buildings, and buy meals for the neighbors. Even lower-tier runners can craft a sustainable living — a significant fact in a country where there are not enough jobs. But there are risks to sudden success: Sammy’s life is a dark illustration of them.

Was Sammy Wanjiru the best marathoner the world has ever seen? London Marathon race director David Bedford says it is so. So does Matthew Turnbull.

“No one will know how good he could’ve been,” he said. “He was a fighter. Just an absolute natural. He could’ve pushed the boundaries of road racing. He was a 24-year-old kid making millions doing something he loved. He could’ve been the greatest road racer of all time.”

Anna Clark is a writer from Detroit. She edits the literary blog Isak. Follow her on Twitter at @annaleighclark.

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Ty Cobb as Detroit

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