Running Under The Influence

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Kenya's Sammy Wanjiru crosses the finish line to win the men's London Marathon in London in 2009. (AP)
Kenya's Sammy Wanjiru crosses the finish line to win the men's London Marathon in London in 2009. (AP)


It's such a shame that Sammy Wanjiru will not be in London on August 12 to defend his 2008 Olympic marathon title. Wanjiru, the first Kenyan to win a gold medal in the Olympic marathon (isn't that amazing, given the strength of the Kenyan runners?) died in a fall from his balcony last year. In our conversation on the show Friday, journalist Xan Rice, who investigated Wanjiru's story for a piece in the New Yorker, tells us what we know about what happened and why Wanjiru is missed.

"Wanjiru was an extraordinary marathon runner," said Rice, who spoke to us from Lagos, Nigeria, where he is West Africa correspondent for the Financial Times."To start off he was very young. He was only 21 when he won the Olympic marathon. Most marathoners tend to mature in their late 20s or early 30s. And I think what really marked him was the Olympic marathon in 2008. It was extremely hot. It got up to 84 degrees and it was very humid. From the start he set off as if it was a 1,500 meter race. By the halfway stage he was just 5 seconds off world record pace and people were waiting for him to burn out. But he didn't."

One by one the other competitors dropped back and Wanjiru won in 2 hours, 6-minutes and 32 seconds, nearly 3 minutes faster than the previous Olympic marathon record. Only one other runner in that race even broke the 2-hour-10-minute mark.

American Ryan Hall, who will be running in London this August, finished 10th in Beijing. Hall says Wanjiru's run that day was revolutionary.

"The marathon's changed. Sammy changed it. Guys aren't afraid to go out hard anymore. So we've got to be prepared to go out and run a very fast opening half in London," he said.

But, as Rice tells us, along with Wanjiru's talent, there were demons — he started drinking when he was going to school and training in Japan, and when he returned home to Kenya, he struggled to deal with family pressures and increasingly turned to alcohol.

His drinking was bad enough to cause concern among friends and coaches. But, as Rice writes, he was a hero, so people were reluctant to confront him.

There's no doubt Wanjiru was drunk the night he died. Trouble started when he brought a waitress he had picked up at a bar to the home he shared with his wife, who wasn't home at the time. When she came home, she confronted them, and locked them in one section of the house. Wanjiru said he was going to get the keys to get out, and he opened the door to the balcony, and was soon found on the ground, ten feet below. He died shortly thereafter.

Sammy Wanjiru was just 23-years-old when he died. He had won five of the seven marathons he had run.

Sadly, there won't be an eighth. It makes me think of Steve Prefontaine, the great American runner in the 1970s. Prefontaine had finished a heartbreaking 4th in the 1972 Olympic 5,000 meter race, just missing a medal. But he died in a car crash in 1975, on his way home from a party. Pre was 24.


  • Xan Rice, West Africa correspondent for the Financial Times

This segment aired on June 15, 2012.


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