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 – far more famous for his scientific genius 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 Kenyan casualties.
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 carotid artery, 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’ is a term that 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/