BeijingFor Kenyan athletics it was an historic moment. But for Kenya itself it’s a symbol of peace just months after it was torn apart by bloody political violence that divided country along tribal lines.
On a sweltering last morning at the Beijing Olympic Games, two Kenyans from different tribal backgrounds hatched a plan to bring their country, the most famous distance running nation in the world, its first Olympic marathon gold.
The plan was simple – run the first half fast. But it worked to perfection as Sammy Wanjiru, a 21-year-old Kikuyu from Kenya’s Central Province smashed the Olympic record that was set three years before he was born in only the third Mrathon of his career.
“I’m really happy to be the winner here in Beijing,” says Wanjiru, who crossed the line in 30 degree heat in 2:06:32, almost three full minutes inside the record set by Carlos Lopes back in 1984. “This is history for Kenya. Since 1968 we’ve been trying but we haven’t ever won a gold medal in the marathon. I’m really happy to make Kenyan history.”
Wanjiru’s victory brought Kenya’s gold medal haul to five, making these Games the country’s most successful ever – a fitting achievement for a nation that started the year in such turmoil that many of its runners were forced to flee for their lives, and many more had to leave the country just to find a safe place to train.
That Wanjiru’s performance owes much to his partnership with Martin Lel, a Kalenjin by background, only adds to its poignancy.
Lel, Wanjiru and the third Kenyan team member, the 2007 world champion Luke Kibet, were all too aware of the gaping hole in Kenya’s marathon history, and felt a deep sense of responsibility to fill it. They were fully aware too of the problems their country has had to overcome in the last eight months – Kibet himself was attacked twice during the upheavals, and Lel had to flee from his base in the Rift Valley to train in the hills among tea plantations, and later in Namibia.
“It wasn’t ideal,” says Lel. “We tried to carry on training but it wasn’t good for us with the fighting that was going on.”
Not ideal preparation then, to break your Olympic duck. So often Kenya has come to the Games with high hopes of winning the Marathon. After all, its Marathon runners have swamped the world lists year after year and athletes such as Lel, Robert Cheruiyot and Paul Tergat, the former World record holder, have won many of the big city races around the globe.
Indeed, Tergat was favourite to win the Athens Olympic marathon four years ago, but struggled home in tenth place as Italy’s Stefano Baldini took the gold with a calculated piece of pacing. In Olympic terms, before today all Kenya had to show for its rich Marathon history was two silvers and one bronze.
But Lel and Wanjiru learned from Athens, and from this year’s London Marathon – where they ran at near World record pace for 35km. “The idea was to make this like London,” explained Lel. “Run it fast and hard, especially in the first half.
“We realised that in the Olympics if there is a slow pace in the first half then Kenyans are trapped because the Europeans and others will be very strong in the later stages. So we knew our tactics had to be to fight hard in the first half so we could cut them off with a fast pace.”
“We know that Kenyans like to run very fast, so if it was a slow pace it would have been much harder to win,” confirmed Wanjiru. “I tried to push at a high pace because the Asians and Europeans are usually very strong in the second half.”
In the end they sacrificed two, but it was worth it. Kibet, who made much of the early running, paid for it after 25km when he was forced to pull out. Lel hung onto the group of five front runners until around 30km when Wanjiru surged ahead with Ethiopia’s Deriba Merga and Jaouad Gharib of Morocco, who would eventually get the silver.
Lel finished fifth in the end, but for him it was a triumph. “It was very tough for everybody,” he says. “In fact it was a good race, especially for us because we needed to be tactical and to use a kind of stealth. We planned to have a gold for Kenya, that’s all.
“In the end I think Sammy was excellent, and for me, I am OK. Kenya has a gold and that’s what we came for. It’s great for me.”
For Wanjiru the gold medal is not just a national triumph but a personal one, marking the end of a journey that’s taken him across three continents, from an impoverished upbringing in rural Africa, via a Japanese education, to record-breaking exploits in Europe, and the top of the Olympic medal podium in China.
Brought up in the small town of Nyahururu by his single mother, Anne Wanjiru (it’s a Kikuyu tradition to take your mother’s name), Wanjiru left home at 15 to go to Japan on an education scholarship. It was something of a trend at the time for Kenyans to go to Japan, one started back in the 1980s by Douglas Wakihurii, who won Marathon gold at the 1987 World Championships. He studied at Sendai Ikuei High School, the same school attended by former Goodwill Games winner Julius Gitahi.
Wanjiru was already a runner but it was only when he broke the world age 15 best for 10,000m in Konosu that he realised how good. He soon hooked up with Koichi Morishita, the 1992 Olympic silver medallist, and Morishita became his coach.
It took just three years before he first burst onto the international scene with two sparkling performances within the space of two weeks at the end of summer 2005. Still 18, Wanjiru set a magnificent world junior record of 26:41.75 for 10,000m at the IAAF Golden League meeting in Brussels, finishing third behind Kenenisa Bekele’s brilliant world record of 26:17.53.
Then, just 15 days later, he smashed the World record for the half marathon, clocking a stunning 59:16 to win in Rotterdam, a second inside Tergat’s 1998 time from Milan. In doing so he beat the likes of Patrick Ivuti, Rodgers Rop and Kibet. Suddenly the athletics world was taking notice.
In 2007 he lowered the record again, twice, and had the first of a number of battles with Lel in the Lisbon half marathon. They met again at the Great North Run before Wanjiru ran a stunning Marathon debut in Fukuoka of 2:06:39.
It was then that he decided the Marathon was his race, and that he wanted to represent Kenya in Beijing, an ambition secured at the London Marathon when he and Lel led home one of the greatest race ever seen, Lel winning in 2:05:15 with Wanjiru just nine seconds behind.
Winning the Olympics would be a different matter, however – no pace makers, hot and humid conditions, and tactically astute opponents. They would have to prepare well.
In June Wanjiru moved back to Kenya with his wife and one-year-old child. “I trained in Kenya for this race because in Japan it was too hot,” he says. “I lived there for six years, studying mostly and running for a club (the Toyota Yushu Company).
“But now I will stay in Kenya because I want to be at home. In Japan I was training alone and when you are training alone you can’t be so strong.”
He and Lel have now become good friends and Lel pays tribute to his “great heart and courage at the end of a race”. “When I met him for the first time I realised at that time that he is a strong guy who can run very fast,” he says. “Whenever he’s there he fights hard and works and that is why I like him.”
The Olympic title in his bag, Wanjiru now has Haile Gebrselassie’s World record in his sights – he wants to break it at the Berlin Marathon next year – and may even return to the track with a few 10,000m races in Europe. For the time being though, he’s happy to enjoy his moment, and his new role as a symbol of the country’s peace.
“We had problems this year but now we have a good peace,” he says. “Everybody is at peace.”
Matthew Brown for the IAAF