Kenya’s Sammy Wanjiru won the country its first Olympic medal when he won gold at the 2008 Beijing marathon. That made Wanjiru rich and famous and promised a decade of earnings potential as an elite marathon runner. He was just 21-years-old. He followed up his win at the Olympics with wins at the London and Chicago marathons in 2009. Wanjiru would be dead by 24.
But, in the end, Sammy’s death may show nothing as much as the shockingly cavalier way Kenya treats its abundant athletic resources. Sammy is buried in a dairy farm he purchased near his home where a single sheep grazes by the red marble tomb embossed with a photo of him smiling in a shiny brown suit. There’s no statue to him, no race named in his honor. On the contrary, Kenya has moved on from his passing in spectacular fashion.
Four Kenyans ran 2:04 or better last year, and at the end of this month, Athletics Kenya will pick a three-man Olympic marathon team from a field of six that includes Patrick Makau, who shattered the world record in Berlin with 2:03:38, and Geoffrey Mutai, the New York City Marathon winner whose personal best is 2:03:02. The stark reality is that Sammy might not even have made Kenya’s 2012 Olympic marathon squad.
“I was the head of the delegation in Beijing,” says David Okeyo, the secretary general of Athletics Kenya, “and I was one of the happiest people in the world when Wanjiru won that marathon. What happened with him is very sad.” Asked what he thinks about the charges and counter-charges, he says, “One day the truth will come out. I am sure of it.”
But it already has. It wasn’t the fall that killed Sammy Wanjiru. In Kenya, it’s always the rise.
His death is a tragic and mysterious story, one that ESPN has tried to piece together.