Grass has overgrown the unattended grave of Samuel Wanjiru on the remote Ol-Ojorok plateau in central Kenya, a symbol of how quickly a country can forget its heroes.
“He was a great guy,” said Eliud Kipchoge, a two-time London marathon champion who began running at the same time as Wanjiru. Kipchoge hopes to win the Olympic marathon in Rio de Janeiro to revive memories of his friend.
“It is sad that he lies in his grave completely forgotten. He brought a lot of honour to Kenya,” Kipchoge said.
“It is still fresh in my mind when he entered the Beijing Olympic Stadium, seeing him win the marathon gold medal. It was a great moment.”
Wanjiru died on May 15, 2011 aged just 24. He had had a few drinks when he fell, or maybe was pushed, from a balcony at his house in Nyahururu.
He is the subject of at least two books, but the cause of his death has never been fully established. The case set off a tabloid furore. His mother was convinced he was murdered.
Born to a single mother, Hannah, Wanjiru was raised by a grandfather at Ol-Ojorok where he grew up herding cattle and goats.
He excelled in school sports and caught the eye of veteran athletics coach Robert Kioni, who took Wanjiru to Nyahururu to train.
Kioni said Wanjiru was “dedicated”. “He was there to inspire the other younger athletes.”
Kioni convinced Shunichi Kobayashi, a Kenyan-based Japanese athletics promoter, to take Wanjiru to Japan to study. At the age of 14, he joined a growing number of young Kenyans heading East instead of taking track scholarships in the United States.
Stephen Mayaka, one of the first Kenyan athletes to train in Japan, helped Wanjiru through the early years in Sendai.
“Wanjiru took some time to integrate into the Japan ‘jitsugyodan’ system. He wasn’t a strong athlete. It took him two to three years of hard training to become the runner he would be.”
Wanjiru’s determination was phenomenal, however, and impressed many who came into contact with him.
In three years, he bettered the 10,000 metres junior world record, broke the world half marathon record and won Kenya’s first Olympic marathon gold.
“Wanjiru was special,” said veteran sports journalist and personal friend Peter Njenga. “He could be an outgoing guy but when it came to training he very serious. He accepted to forgo the 2007 world championships in Osaka and give his place to another athlete so that he could prepare for the Beijing Olympics the following year.”
At the age of 18, in his first international track race, Wanjiru came third in Brussels behind Ethiopian 10,000m world record holder, Kenenisa Bekele and Uganda’s Boniface Kiprop, the world junior record holder.
Wanjiru set a world junior record time of 26min 41.75sec, eclipsing Kiprop’s 27:04.00 set at the same meeting the previous year.
No race captured the Wanjiru spirit better than the Beijing Olympic marathon in August 2008. It was his first full marathon and Wanjiru, at 21, was the youngest man in the field of 98 competitors from 57 countries.
The field crawled through the opening 10 kilometres in 29min 25sec before Wanjiru charged ahead with Ethiopia’s Derba Merga. The Kenyan attacked, dropping Merga and two-time world champion Jaouad Gharib of Morocco in the last 10km.
Wanjiru took the gold medal in an Olympic record time of 2hr 6min 32sec, erasing a 24 year old mark set by Portugal’s great Carlos Lopez at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
“Wanjiru put everything into something that he believed in,” Njenga said. “He was a rare talent, a sort of a person who warmed himself into many people’s hearts.”
There were jubilant celebrations in Kenya and thousands jammed into a local stadium in Nyahururu to welcome the hero back.
Success may also have brought Wanjiru’s downfall. It is believed Wanjiru’s life changed after he resigned from the Toyota company in Japan to return home to his wife Triza Njeri and three-year-old daughter Ann Wanjiru.
“By nature Wanjiru was a very humble man,” Njenga said.
“Many young athletes relied on him and he used to pay for their food and accommodation in Ngong. But he also started being surrounded by hangers-on who were not interested in his welfare. Their intention was to get a share of his money. He was slowly being destroyed by the local people.”
A feud between his mother and wife intensified and Wanjiru became emotionally torn.
A chance to move into the quieter region of Eldoret and train under Claudio Berardelli was seen a chance for the star to escape the distractions.
The night of his death he had just returned to Nyahururu and the cause of the turmoil in his life.