Xan Rice, the West Africa correspondent for Financial Times, has a piece in the most recent issue of The New Yorker (unfortunately you need a subscription) about the sensational, but short, career of the late Kenyan marathon runner, Samuel Wanjiru. The article tells of Wanjiru’s sensational career as a distance runner, his tragically scandalous personal life, and the uncertain circumstances of his death. For those who may not know, on May 15, 2011 Wanjiru fell from a balcony at his home in Nyahururu, Kenya following a dispute with his first wife (who had allegedly come home to find him in bed with another woman) and died. He was 24 years old.

Sammy Wanjiru became the first Kenyan to win an Olympic gold medal in the marathon with his record-shattering performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. What makes Wanjiri’s achievements so remarkable is that most marathon runners only peak by their late 20s and early 30s. His winning time of 2:06:32 was nearly three minutes faster than that of the previous record holder, Carlos Lopes of Portugal, who won the event at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Wanjiru’s win in 2008 also made him the youngest marathon gold medal recipient in seventy-six years. That race is considered by many to be one of the greatest marathons ever and two years later in Chicago he continued to stun spectators with perhaps the most exciting marathon win anyone has ever seen. In the final stretch of the 2010 Chicago Marathon, an all-out battle – the likes of which I personally have never before witnessed in a distance running event – broke out between Sammy and Ethiopian runner, Tsegaye Kebede. Then, in the final few hundred yards of the race Wanjiru accelerated into a full sprint uphill, leaving Kebede in the dust and crossing the finish line of his final race in a truly spectacular fashion.

The questionable circumstances of Wanjiru’s death (the police initially called it a suicide, while Wanjiru’s mother has accused his wife of murder) has certainly resulted in considerable media coverage of the man and his story. While most of this coverage is predictably lazy and rife with all the clichés and stereotypes we have come to expect from journalism on (East) Africa (e.g. red earth, the natural athleticism of Africans, tribal violence, poverty, corruption, rural life, etc), Xan Rice’s piece stands out for its discussion of the history of alcohol abuse among Kenyan runners and its treatment of the issue of why Kenyans are such successful distance runners. Although Rice is unable to steer clear of these tropes completely, he makes an effort to emphasize the fact that the success of Kenyan (and more broadly, East African) runners has little to nothing to do with genetics. Rather, he cites the high altitudes at which these athletes train and the intense competition from their training partners as a partial explanation for the dominance of East Africans in the world of competitive distance running.

For the most part however, Rice does not dwell on these risky nature vs nurture-style debates, choosing instead to focus on Wanjiru’s unconventional style and the psychological, cultural, and familial pressures that may have contributed to his turbulent lifestyle and alcohol abuse. He points out that Sammy Wanjiru is but one case of a much larger trend of alcoholism among Kenyan runners and suggests that the kind of support and regulation present within the national running industries of places like Ethiopia is absent in the Kenyan counterpart. This fact, he implies, may go a long way in explaining how such a trend has gone unaddressed for so long.

* In a somewhat related note: For those interested in the world of running in East Africa, the documentary “Town of Runners” was released last month. The film focuses on young runners from Bekoji – an Ethiopian highland town which has produced some of the world’s greatest distance athletes. I have yet to see the film myself, but it seems interesting enough. I’ve included the trailer below.