“They helplessly watched from a distance as Wanjiru crushed their tomatoes, potatoes, vegetables, squash and peppers…”
For three years, Samuel Kamau Wanjiru was Kenya’s highest-paid sportsman. In a good month, with his appearance fee of $200,000 or about Sh16 million, an amount only matched by the Jamaican Usain Bolt, his pay was way above that of chief executives of listed companies.
On February 29, 2008, when he was only 24 he received $300,000 (about Sh24m) from Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Hahyan of the United Arab Emirates after winning the Zayed International Half Marathon. He had to look for a plastic bag to carry the bank notes, as the prize was paid in cash.
In two years, his takings from two marathon majors were $1 million (Sh80m). Conservative estimates put the amount of money he received between 2007 and 2010 at $6 million (Sh500m).
This amount of money precipitated the downfall of a young man in his early 20s whose first pay cheque was for Sh16,000, according to a new book.
Running on Empty, written by Dutch journalist Frits Conijn, graphically documents the marathon star’s meteoric rise from a difficult childhood to the life of a king and his equally rapid decline in the classic story of a tragic hero.
It would seem much of Wanjiru’s money went into buying cars, as his love for the machines was legendary. He owned a Toyota Rav4, a Land Rover, a Toyota Land Cruiser, a Toyota Mark II, a Toyota Milano and a Subaru Impreza.
But by the time of his death, none of these cars was serviceable. So when he was called to Eldoret early last year, he had to borrow his wife Triza’s car. It is the matter of the car that would arise in the circumstances surrounding his death.
On Thursday, May 12 Conijn writes that Triza had called Wanjiru asking tht he come home from Eldoret for a number of issues, one of which was the borrowed car. She had complained that she could not move freely as she relied on other people for transport.
“She cared that people would probably gossip that Wanjiru had used up all his money,” writes Conijn.
The love of cars went back to Wanjiru’s childhood. While training in Japan he once told a friend that he wanted to buy a big car, “the largest in Kenya”.
But Wanjiru’s money found use in another big way. “Wanjiru was the king of Nyahururu, not only because he was the Olympic champion but also because he was a member of the Kikuyu Council of Elders.
For this honorary position, Wanjiru paid a high price. As an elder, he was responsible for the welfare of the people in Nyahururu, and in times of scarcity, he would provide food.”
But this probably did not match his generosity in the bar which, by 2011, was reducing his estate by $1,700 or about Sh136,000 a month, according to the book.
But that was not a cause of concern for the athlete. “Wanjiru was sure of winning many more races and saw no reason for thinking so much about the money he spent,” Conijn writes.
Despite an attempt by his coach, manager and lawyer to set his monthly budget at $9,000 (Sh720,000) to check his extravagant lifestyle, his wealth, according to Conijn, had shrunk to $50,000 – less than Sh5 million – by the time of his death.
Running on Empty portrays a man whose money went to his head. Priests, petrol station attendants and Nyahururu residents got a share of his “whims and caprices”.
Once, while in a drunken stupor, he drove his car through the crowded market in Nyahururu, sending vendors and customers scampering for safety.
“They helplessly watched from a distance as Wanjiru crushed their tomatoes, potatoes, vegetables, squash and peppers. Surprisingly, no complaint was filed with the police against the athlete because, at the end of the ride, he pulled out his wallet and generously compensated people for the damage he had caused.”
The book narrates how the champion thrashed a priest who grazed his goats on his land and threatened to shoot another in a road rage.
“He continuously scolded the priest and pointed his lethal weapon at the man of God. The priest, who was now clearly surprised, said: ‘Pull the trigger if you have to but know that you are about to destroy yourself.’ ”
Did this come to pass?