Kenyan Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru died after a fall from a second-floor balcony during a domestic dispute involving his wife and another woman, officials said Monday.
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenyan Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru died after a fall from a second-floor balcony during a domestic dispute involving his wife and another woman, officials said Monday.
One police official said the 24-year-old Wanjiru committed suicide, while another said he jumped to stop his wife from leaving the house after she discovered him with another woman. His agent, Federico Rosa, does not believe it was suicide.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Wanjiru became the first Kenyan to win a gold medal in the marathon. At 21, he had the promise to dominate the distance for another decade.
"It is a huge tragedy," Jos Hermens, a long distance expert and manager of Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie, told The Associated Press. "He could have won two, three more Olympic Games. He was an incredible talent."
Wanjiru, who won five of his seven marathons and was the youngest runner to win four "major" marathons, died late Sunday at his home in the town of Nyahururu, in the Rift Valley, the cradle of Kenyan long-distance running.
"The fact of the matter is that Wanjiru committed suicide," national police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said.
Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere also said initial reports indicated Wanjiru killed himself, but a local official offered a different account.
"Wanjiru came home with another woman friend at around 11:30 p.m. and then when his wife came home and found them she inquired who the lady was," area police chief Jasper Ombati said. "They got into an argument. His wife locked them in the bedroom and ran off.
"He then jumped from the bedroom balcony. He is not here to tell us what he thinking when he jumped. We do not suspect foul play. In our estimation we think he wanted to stop his wife from leaving the compound."
Ombati said the balcony is between 13 and 19 feet high. He said the runner landed on a hard surface.
Rosa confirmed there had been a domestic dispute over another woman, but said Wanjiru would not have killed himself.
"I talked to him yesterday and the day before," he said, noting his training was proceeding smoothly. "It was going well and smoothly and he had no problem at all.
"This I can guarantee, it was not a suicide at all," Rosa said.
In addition to the Olympics, Wanjiru won the London Marathon in 2009 and in Chicago in 2009 and 2010, in the process running the fastest ever time recorded in a marathon in the United States.
Gebrselassie, a two-time Olympic 10,000-meter champion and world-record holder in the marathon, said on his Twitter feed that he was "totally shocked" by the news.
"My thoughts are with his family and all his friends and colleagues," Gebrselassie said.
"Of course one wonders if we as an athletics family could have avoided this tragedy," he said.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Wanjiru was "steadily developing into our country’s running phenomenon."
He offered condolences to family, friends, Kenya and the entire world athletics community, calling the death "a big blow to our dreams."
Olympic 5,000 and 10,000-meter champion Kenenisa Bekele said he looked up to Wanjiru as a great athlete.
"I was looking forward to meet him in the future at the marathon distance and to race against him," the Ethiopian said.
The major marathons also offered condolences.
"We’ll miss his confidence, bravado, guts and heart," New York Road Runners president and CEO Mary Wittenberg said. "The sport is down a game changing megastar today. How very sad for all."
London Marathon race director David Bedford said Wanjiru "was in my opinion the best marathon runner ever."
Wanjiru had a history of domestic problems. Last December, he was charged with wounding his security guard with a rifle and threatening to kill his wife, Triza Njeri, and maid. The runner denied all charges and was released on bail.
"That was another issue," said Rosa, adding that Wanjiru had been attacked more than once at his home and threatened with kidnapping and had the weapon for preventive reasons only.
On Valentine’s Day, the couple announced on TV that they working on their differences and Njeri dropped the charges against her husband.
On Monday, two other women claimed they were also married to Wanjiru. Polygamy is common practice for many Kenyan tribes.
Hermens said Wanjiru saw too much success too early in his career.
"An Olympic champion at 21, he was poised to become the world-record holder in the marathon. He could not deal with all the luxury. It all went too fast, too much money," Hermens said. "You could not say anything bad about him. He just could not deal with it all.
"He was a lion of a man, and he departed us in much the same way."
Wanjiru made an early start to his career, moving to Japan aged 15 where he attended school in Sendai — a city hard hit by this year’s tsunami — where he won some major cross-country events while also competing in track competitions.
Moving to Europe to advance his promising career, Wanjiru won the Rotterdam Half Marathon in 2005 in a world record time.
He twice improved on that record before stepping up to the full marathon in 2007, back in Japan, winning the Fukuoka Marathon.
The following year he finished second in the London Marathon, and then claimed the biggest prize of his career by taking Olympic gold in Beijing.
"Sammy Wanjiru was an accomplished runner who will be remembered for winning the first Olympic gold medal for Kenya in marathon and setting a new Olympic record in the process," the International Olympic Committee said in a statement. "Our thoughts are with his family and friends."
AP Sports Writer Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)