Sammy Wanjiru and the marathon mystery.

Sammy Wanjiru achieved one of the most remarkable feats in Olympic marathon history, but what followed is a story of mystery and tragedy.

The Kenyan set a new Olympic games record of 2:06.32 when he won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games ahead of Jaouad Gharib of Morocco and Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia.

An Olympic record is a remarkable achievement in any circumstances, but Wanjiru’s is all the more impressive. Beijing was extremely hot and humid on the morning of the race and even the spectators in the main stadium and on the roadside were drenched in sweat. The heat and humidity combined with Beijing’s famous air pollution to make conditions some of the least favourable for a marathon runner. Despite this, Wanjiru attacked from the gun, and ran the first five kilometres in 14:52.

Legend has it that when the newly-crowned champion was asked about how the conditions affected his tactics and performance, he said that because of the heat he wanted to finish the race sooner so he just ran faster.

The comment illustrates something of the Kenyan mentality towards distance running. Ultimately, they believe that the key to success is hard work. The key to success is working harder in training than you do in a race. The key to success is working harder than any of your training partners, or anyone else on the track or the trails around Iten in the Rift Valley. This philosophy works because most of the other athletes running around Iten have enough raw talent to be the best in the world.

Wanjiru’s compatriots and training partners are also motivated by something other than patriotism, the Olympic ideals and the quest for personal excellence. They are motivated by money.

Most rural Kenyans, especially those from the running heartland of the Rift Valley, have very few opportunities to make enough money to live a comfortable life, free of the endless, monotonous physical labour which defines the life of most Iten locals. Running is their chance to make serious money.

It may surprise many people, even keen fans of Athletics, to know that Wanjiru won the first ever Olympic marathon gold medal for his country. Kenyans are famed for their long-distance victories, but have actually had more success in middle-distance events, or on the lucrative international road-running circuit.

Wanjiru and his neighbours grew up seeing successful distance runners making money. Champions bought nice houses for themselves and their families, wore good clothes and drove modern cars. They looked after their families and sent their children to good schools. Wanjiru and his peers grew up desiring this success.

Unfortunately, Wanjiru was one of the successful Kenyan runners who suffered from sudden fame and wealth and died in mysterious circumstances.

Wanjiru died after falling from the balcony of his home in Nyahuru 2011. The great champion, who still holds the world junior record for 10,000m, who won the London and Chicago marathons and set three world records for the half marathon, was dead before his 26th birthday.

The tragedy of a rare talent lost for ever is matched only by the mystery of his death. It was never established if Wanjiru was pushed, fell or jumped from the balcony.

The official police investigation and court proceedings failed to prove conclusively how Wanjiru died.

One theory suggests that his first of three wives, Triza Njeri, found him in bed with another woman and locked the couple in the bedroom. When she apparently ran outside Wanjiru jumped from the balcony, causing his death.

Another theory suggests that Wanjiru was murdered by a group of men working alongside Njeri. Wanjiru’s mother, Hannah told a court that she believes her son was murdered. During this investigation, a former pathologist claimed that the champion jumped from the balcony or was pushed, that he landed on his legs but was then struck by a blunt object.

What is known is that Wanjiru had been drinking at the time of his death. He had battled alcohol addiction throughout most of his short adult life, even while he was winning major international races and breaking records. This surely is testament to his talent and the amazing toughness of a fierce competitor whose finishing time in the stifling heat of Beijing is still the Olympic record.

Can I Have Your SIM Card?

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My landlord asked me for my SIM card.

I was leaving Brunei and I knew I wasn’t coming back – so did my landlord. A few days before I left the country for good, the landlord messaged me and asked if he could have my SIM card.

Why did he want my SIM?

He didn’t say. But amid the mixed emotions of leaving a country I had lived and worked in for three years, my mind did begin to wander. The landlord clearly wanted access to a SIM that was not registered in his name.

Did he have a mistress?

Perhaps.

This is certainly common in Brunei, despite, or because of, the country being a strict Muslim nation under Sharia law. Many married men are known to have mistresses and many of the girls were apparently quite young. In fact, one of the girls I was teaching, who was 14 or 15, suddenly disappeared from my class and her name was removed from the class roll. I was informed, quietly, that she would not be returning for some time as she had been sent to an establishment for ‘re-education’ after being caught in a relationship with a married man. According to my source, the girl’s behaviour would be ‘corrected’, while the adult male in the relationship would not suffer the same consequences.

I was also informed that men would lure girls into relationships with nothing more than a SIM card or the promise to pay for their phone credit.

Was he a criminal?

I don’t know, but that was another obvious assumption. Maybe I’ve watched too many gritty crime dramas in which the criminals have endless access to burner phones and new SIM cards, but I couldn’t help assuming that he wanted a number that wouldn’t be traced back to him because he was involved in some shady business.

My suspicions grew because of what happened before I moved into his house. It was offered fully furnished, but when I moved in, there was no furniture in it. I was told that he could not arrange the furniture, despite having more than a month to do so, because he was still overseas on business.

“He can’t get a visa”

This is the reason I was given for his delay. He apparently hadn’t returned because he was waiting for the Bruneian government to grant him a visa, to return to Brunei.

My landlord was a middle-aged Malay, Muslim Bruneian citizen, born and bred in the country, yet he needed to apply for a visa to come back into his country. I had never heard of this before and I don’t know if any other country applies this condition to their own citizens.

I had been told, however, that the Bruneian government (the royal family) pays particularly close attention to any Bruneian citizen, or long-term resident, who accumulates a significant amount of income. I had also heard that the government will stop anyone from earning more than a certain amount of money because money equals power.

It was suggested to me that his business was quite successful, and his new-found wealth may have attracted the attention of government officials.

He’s not Chinese.

The threat of a wealthy citizenry prevents many Chinese Bruneians from earning full citizenship. Many Chinese Bruneians are technically stateless because, despite living in the country for many generations, they are never granted full citizenship. Chinese people, and those from the sub-continent, run the day to day economy of the country, and some are so successful that they accumulate considerable wealth.

However, their businesses are fully or partly owned by a Malay Bruneian, because the Chinese do not have full citizenship. The royal family knows that if Chinese Bruneians enjoyed the same rights as Malay Bruneians, their superior business acumen of the Chinese would erode the power of the government.

What was his business?

I don’t know. I never found out.

Why did your landlord have your number?

It’s a peculiarity in Brunei that real estate dealings for rental properties are normally conducted directly between the landlord and the tenant, even though the property is rented through an estate agent.

What do estate agents do?

Apart from listing rental properties and organising the initial meeting between the two parties, not much. If you’re looking for an easy, well-paying job, become a real estate agent in Brunei.

Did I give him the SIM card?

No, I needed it up until I checked in for my flight in order to hand over some items to a staff member from the company with which I had been working. I didn’t realise at the time of the request, but I also needed it after the flight home was cancelled and I was trapped in the country for one more night – and put up at a dodgy hotel not 200 metres from the house I had just vacated.

I could have stayed one more night in the house.

If only I’d given the landlord my SIM.

Image: Brett Jordan