NAIROBI, August 30 – At the break of dawn last Sunday, patrons of a popular nightspot in Westlands were glued to the TV screens completely oblivious of the music blaring off the speakers.
Haki yetu, haki yetu! They shouted as a lone Kenyan athlete strived for the home stretch prompting the DJ to switch off the music as all attention turned to the last minutes of one of the most intriguing marathons in Olympic history.
Minutes later, Samuel Kamau Wanjiru entered the bird’s nest to huge cheer from the 91,000 strong crowd going on to win the marathon gold in a new Olympic record of 2:06:32.
For Kenya not to have won a marathon gold medal always seemed surreal probably up there with Brazil’s inability to win gold in men’s football.
A country that has 47 percent of the top times in this most gruelling of races and which has produced winners of the big five marathons in the last two years, should surely have won the Olympic gold at least once.
But 21 year old Wanjiru changed all that with a scintillating run on Sunday morning. Running bravely from the front, the Japan based athlete tore the field apart to win Kenya’s first gold medal and remove a jinx that had hounded Kenya since 1956.
Fittingly, he was the last athlete to be presented with his medal- perhaps an indication of how great an obstacle he had overcome.
"The gold may have been won by Wanjiru but the glory and honour goes to the country as a whole," he told Capital Sport earlier this week.
Wanjiru’s plan for the race had been fairly simple and straight forward, – run fast, as fast as possible.
He went for the jugular straight from the off setting a furious pace and by the five kilometre mark, he had reduced the leading pack to 12. They hang in there but by 20km mark, the leading pack was down to five as Wanjiru upped the pace.
"I had planned to go out very fast like we had done in London because I was afraid of the finishing abilities of the Ethiopians and Moroccans. I told Martin Lel and Luke Kibet that we should go out fast but unfortunately Luke developed problems."
By the 25k mark, the leading group was now down to five with Deriba Merga doing most of the front running with Jaouad Gharib, Lel and Wanjiru all bunched in there.
When Lel dropped further back with eight kilometres to go, Wanjiru knew the onus was on him to bring it and home and boy did he do it.
At the 38 kilometre mark, it was down to a three man race with Gharib and Merga keeping Wanjiru company. Having missed his water, he gratefully accepted Merga’s bottle, took a swig and acknowledged the Ethiopian with a wave.
That would be the last contact between him and his pursuers as he applied the coup de grace injecting a burst of pace that pulled him away. Behind him, Gharib hang on grimly but Wanjiru was gone.
"Merga is my friend and when I missed my water, he helped me out and told me to go for it as he was not feeling good."
The impact of his maiden Olympics Marathon victory was evident at the airport where the crowd went berserk when he disembarked from the plane. "The welcome was overwhelming and it made me feel proud to be a Kenyan to have won that medal for Kenya."
On his future plans, Wanjiru says he now wants to have a crack at the world record which is currently held by Haile Gebrselassie. "I would want to try break the world record in Berlin next year but if am selected for the World championships then maybe I will run there first."
Coach Julius Kirwa said the he had always had faith in the youngster saying he could have gone even faster, "I think he could have done 2:04 if he had been pushed in the last few kilometres. He has energy and strength that it could have been easy for him to run that time.
For Wanjiru, Beijing also provided personal redemption. Last year he finished 51st at the world Road Running championships despite going in as an odds on favourite. Earlier, he had opted pout of the World Championships squad after athletes protested his inclusion as a reserve.
"Kenyans say that we run well in big city marathons but not in Olympics and I wanted to change that b doing well for my country."
Such is his ambition that despite winning gold he was not entirely satisfied, "I wanted us to go 1-2-3 but unfortunately, Kibet struggled early on in the race while Lel was affected by the heat."
Wanjiru’s rise to the apex of distance running has been exceptional. He set his first Half Marathon World record two years ago at the age of 18.
He moved to Japan in 2003 to attend Sendai Ikue High School after winning a selection race, "It was very cold," said Wanjiru
After graduating from Sendai Ikue high school in March 2005, Wanjiru now runs for Toyota Kyushu, and is coached by Koichi Morishita, a silver medallist at the Marathon in the 1992 Olympic Games.
But 2005 was the year where he shot to global prominence, winning a string of races in Japan and setting his first World Half Marathon record. He started with a third place finish in San Juan and followed it with victories in the Chiba ekiden 12k race in 34:54 in February and the IAAF Permit Fukuoka Cross Country 10k race in March in 29:20.
On August 26, 2005, Wanjiru set a new world junior record over 10,000m (26:41.75) at the IAAF Golden League Van Damme Memorial race in Brussels.
Then on September 11, he set his first Half Marathon world record (59:16) in Rotterdam, beating the mark held by Paul Tergat since 1998.Wanjiru finished a storming 2005 season by winning Kenya’s Most Promising Sportsman of the Year award.
Wanjiru started 2006 on a sour note as he lost his World Half Marathon record to Ethiopian track and road running legend Haile Gebrselassie (58:55) on 15 January.
A relatively unsuccessful 2006 for Wanjiru was put to rest early in 2007 when he reclaimed his World Half Marathon record in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE, on February 9 (58:53). This mark was however not ratified since EPO tests were not conducted on athletes.
To hammer the point home, Wanjiru returned to lower that time on March 27 in Holland, setting the current best time of 58:33 as he won the Fortis City-Pier-City Half Marathon in Den Haag.
His mother works in a children home in Nyahururu and that is where he donated his $25,000 bonus for shattering the World record in Den Haag. "I’m gonna tell her now by phone about my World record and the $25,000 dollar they will get." he said then.
In December 2007, he made his eagerly awaited debut in marathon in Fukuoka.
Running most of the race on his own, Wanjiru set a new course record of 2:06:39 just as he had predicted earlier in the year. "I hope to run 2:06 on my debut Marathon," he said
Wanjiru began 2008 by winning Granollers half marathon in Spain in 59:26 before competing in the lucrative Zayed International marathon in the UAE winning $300,000 with which he promised to buy his mother a tractor to farm their land.
In April, he made his debut in London marathon setting a new personal best of 2:05:24.