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April 16, 2012
The Mercurial Life and Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru
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April 16, 2012

To Run In Kenya, To Run In The World

The Mercurial Life and Mysterious Death of Sammy Wanjiru

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He did, though, make some fruitful purchases. With the help of James Mwangi, a local veterinarian who became a close friend, Wanjiru purchased a plot of land and built a dairy farm that in its prime sustained 15 cows and produced 55 gallons of milk a day. But the runner never liked to haggle with people over money, and he did not bargain at all when he was drunk. For the Bird Nest Flats apartment complex he was building in the more prosperous city of Nakuru, "he probably spent 10 times the cost," says Ndegwa Wahome, the lawyer who handled the paperwork for Wanjiru's transactions. "Some of the people working there took so much of the materials that they built their own houses."

In front of the compound where Wanjiru was found fatally injured there is still a patch of dead grass. It's where people pitched tents or put down blankets so they could bombard him with business opportunities whenever he came or went.

The tale of the inner-city basketball player climbing from public housing to public figure is familiar to those who follow U.S. sports. Along the altitudinous ledges of the Rift Valley, a similar narrative increasingly plays out among marathon runners, but on a scale even more dizzying and dangerous. "You [Americans] run for glory," says Harun Ngatia, a physiotherapist who works with top runners and treated Wanjiru. "Here the financial interest comes first."

As the monetary rewards of running have increasingly migrated from track events to marathons on streets in Europe and the U.S., Kenyans have followed in astonishing numbers. A single podium finish at a major marathon can earn life-altering money for a rural Kenyan. In Nyahururu, the major shopping mall is the Olympia Centre, which borrows the name of a skyscraper in Chicago and is owned by Daniel Njenga, whose money comes from second- and third-place finishes in that city's marathon.

The result of this concentration of prize money in the marathon has been a dominance unparalleled in modern international sports. Though a power in distance running since the 1960s, Kenyan men have made the marathon their own since Wanjiru's bold example in Beijing. It's the kind of supremacy that usually exists when just one country truly values a sport: Japan in sumo, Canada in curling. Between April and November 2011, Kenyan men broke course records in the five most prominent marathons—Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London and New York City—by a collective sum of six minutes and 22 seconds. It's hard to come up with any measure sufficient to characterize the strength of the Kenyan marathon army, but try this: Sixteen American men in history have run faster than 2:10 (a 4:58 per mile pace); 38 Kenyan men did it in October.

As many superstar marathoners as Kenya produces, relatively few of them are members of the Kikuyu tribe. Outside of Kenya people debate whether Kenyan distance runners have a biological advantage over runners from other countries. Inside Kenya the debate is whether the Kalenjin people have an advantage over the Kikuyu.

The Kalenjin, whose ancestors are from Sudan and who are known for their long limbs and extremely slender build, make up only 12% of Kenya's population but the vast majority of its top runners. Meanwhile the Kikuyu, who tend to be smaller and a bit stockier, compose 22% of the population but contribute far fewer elite athletes. (Several Kalenjin men have claimed to be Wanjiru's father, arguing that with his speed he could only be Kalenjin. Wanjiru's relatives say they are not sure who his father is.) Nyahururu is the major training base for Kikuyu runners.

At 10 a.m. on a typical Tuesday, the gray gravel track in the center of town is thronged. Nearly 100 runners are doing interval sessions. Some of them are unknowns with little experience who show up and try to run stride for stride with athletes such as Charles Kamathi, the 2001 world champion in the 10,000 meters. Even now, some of the runners wear Nikes that Wanjiru acquired through his sponsorship deal and gave to them brand new. Others are dressed in the national gear of athlete-poor but cash-rich countries such as Bahrain, which gives Kenyan runners quick citizenship and a salary in return for results.

According to Kenyan coaches, the Kalenjin communities have had more role models than the less experienced Kikuyu in terms of managing sudden and staggering wealth. Not that it comes easily to anyone. Since sports agents were allowed into Kenya in the '90s, athletes have often learned their business lessons painfully.

Tom Ratcliffe, a Boston-based longtime agent for Kenyan athletes, can rattle off the runners who have made a little money and quickly fallen prey to bad business deals. One of his former clients, Timothy Cherigat, won the Boston Marathon in 2004 and the next year stopped training rigorously and invested in developing a gas station. "It turned out the person he bought the land from didn't own it," says Ratcliffe, who would advise athletes to keep money in treasury bonds until they were done competing. "He lost it, and it got caught up in the courts. He gave his career for that gas station."

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