MARATHON OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS (XXXIII) – Beijing 2008: SAMUEL WANJIRU (1986-2011)

Wanjiru running to victory in Beijing 2008 Olympics

"The speed of the falling water is constant. I think that is how a marathon race is supposed to be run on both sides of the halfway mark - consistently, like the water through the falls" Samuel Wanjiru

Sunday August 24 at 7.30 was the scheduled time for the men´s marathon at the Olympics of Beijing 2008. Ninety-five athletes from 56 nations were ready for the start.

From the top-10 finishers in Athens 2004, only the defending champion, the Italian Stefano Baldini was returning. That meant a lot of new faces, but not at all newcomers to the distance.

The Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Gebrselassie, world record holder, decided not to run the marathon due to air pollution levels and save himself for Berlin, where he had established the WR of 2.04.53 the year before. Despite his absence in the marathon distance, he competed again in the 10000 metres, where he managed to finish 6th in an event where he had been Olympic Champion in 1996 and 2000.

Kenya had never won an Olympic Marathon title yet. Famous for its distance runners, it was sending its strongest team ever: Martin Lel (x3 London and x2 NY winner), Luke Kibet (World Champion 2007) and Samuel Wanjiru. Besides the runners from Ethiopia, already with 4 golds in the marathon distance at Olympic level, other top contenders were Abderrahim Goumri from Morocco (national record 2.05.30 obtained in London 2007) or Ryan Hall from the USA (2.06.17).

Samuel Wanjiru was born in Nyahururu, a town in the Rift Valley, in Kenya, and was brought up in poverty by his single mother, from whom he took the surname. Unable to afford the school fees, he had to abandon school when he was 12. After winning a cross-country race Samuel, only 15, moved to a high school in Sendai, Japan. He had success on the Japanese cross-country circuit and in 2005, after graduation, joined the Toyota Kyūshū athletics team, coached by 1992 Olympic marathon silver medallist Koichi Morishita. He continued his progression and aged 18 broke in the space of two weeks the 10000 metres world junior record (26.41,75) and the half marathon world record (Rotterdam, 59.16). He still managed to break again the half marathon world record to 58.33 in 2007, improving the 58.53 from Gebrselassie in 2006. Debuting in the marathon distance Wanjiru got the third fastest debut marathon ever at the 2007 Fukuoka Marathon with 2:06:39. He arrived at Beijing with high expectations.

Just as soon as the marathon start Kenyans decide to run at world record pace, a strategy unusual for championships.  Running sub 3 minutes kilometres only a small group can follow them. Ten runners at front, mostly from African origins, cross together the 10k in 29.25. Ryan Hall is already falling behind.

After the 10k the pace slow down slightly, but it is only a matter of time before Wanjiru attack again after the kilometre 16. This attack leaves only 5 runners at front, that will probably fight for the medals: Lel and Wanjiru from Kenya, Jaouad Gharib from Morocco, Deriba Merga from Ethiopia, and Yonas Kifle from Eritrea. They cross the 20k in 59.10, and the half marathon in 1.02.34. The WR is still in sight.

Between the 25 and 30k Merga and Kifle do a series of attacks with the goal of reducing the group even more. The 30k os crossed in 1.29.15 with only Merga, Wanjiru and Gharib in the front.

Wanjiru runs easily, waiting for the right moment. Around the 37k he makes his move, with a short but decisive attack. In 3 kilometres he opens a gap of 18s with Gharib, while Merga, who has slowed spectacularly, is losing around 40s per kilometre until kilometre 40, which Wanjiru crosses in 1.59.54.

Nobody can catch Wanjiru. The Olympic victory is his. Twenty-one years old and his third marathon, but more importantly, the first gold for Kenya in an event such important as this. His winning time of 2.06.32 improves in almost three minutes the previous Olympic record set by Carlos Lopes in Los Angeles 1984.

The silver medal is for Gharib with 2.07.16 with bronze going to Tsegay Kebede from Ethiopia with 2.10.00. Ryan Hall finishes only 10th, with Baldini being 12th and Chema Martínez, the best Spanish, 16th with 2.14.00.

But Wanjiru´s successes in the marathon weren´t over. In 2009 he won in London with 2.05.10, and Chicago with 2.05.41, breaking the course record in both events. The WR of Gebrselassie seemed achievable in a near future. In 2010 he revalidated his title in Chicago with 2.06.24. Although his future seemed bright, destiny had different plans. In May 2011 he died after falling from a balcony at his home in unclear circumstances: murder, suicide, or an accident? It was never clear. His personal life wasn´t as successful as his running career. Alcohol related problems and various familiar issues ended a promising career when Samuel died, aged 24, depriving the marathon scene of one of its more talented runners.

 

Sources:

https://olympics.com/en/athletes/samuel-wanjiru

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_2008_Summer_Olympics_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_marathon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Wanjiru

http://www.marathonguide.com/news/exclusives/2008MensOlympicsMarathon/MensOlympicsIAAFPreview2008.cfm

https://sportsscientists.com/2008/08/beijing-2008-men-marathon-report/

Beijing Birds Nest Olympics track

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