2008 – Samuel Wanjiru

Embed from Getty Images

24-Aug-2008 – Beijing Oympics – 2:06:32 – Nike Air Zoom Katana Rac3r III
Date of birth: 10-Nov-1986 (died 15-May-2011 – aged 24)
Nationality: Kenyan
Olympic Record Duration: 15 years, 5 months, 8 days (as of 1 February 2024)

The athlete:                
Samuel Wanjiru actually began his professional athletics career in Japan, having moved there in 2002 during his late teens. There were early signs of his abilities, with Wanjiru setting the new half-marathon world record in 2005. After Haile Gebrselassie set an even faster benchmark in 2007, Wanjiru responded and set another world record with a time of 58:33 by the end of the year. It should be noted that this is still the 8th fastest such performance of all time.

His marathon debut would come at the 2007 Fukuoka Marathon. Wanjiru won and set the new course record in the process. He would further cement his credentials by finishing second at the 2008 London Marathon in 2:05:24 and less than ten seconds behind the winner, countryman Martin Lel. It was somewhat inevitable that he would compete for glory at the Olympics later that year.

Conditions facing competitions that year were far hotter and more humid than preferable for marathon running. Few expected Wanjiru and Lel to smash through the first ten kilometres in 29:25, which was faster than world record pace. Although initially slowing down, Wanjiru would put in his first burst of speed at the 16 kilometre mark to put space between himself and the chasing pack. It was no accident, Wanjiru saying later that he had to push the pace early as he knew he would fade later.

Wanjiru looked in control, with only two other runners with him in the closing kilometres. Wanjiru accelerated, creating an 18 second gap between kilometres 37 and 40. The second half of his race was several minutes slower than his first, but it mattered little. The gold medal was taken by Wanjiru, and with it the new Olympic record, smashing the benchmark set by Carlos Lopes back in 1984.

He would follow his Olympic victory with wins at the 2009 London and Chicago Marathons, setting course records at each in the process. 2010 would bring him another victory at the Chicago Marathon. That win was particularly impressive, Wanjiru having had his training affected by a stomach virus. Despite not feeling his best, he snatched the win with less than 400 metres to go.

Tragically, Wanjiru died under what can only be described as mysterious circumstances in 2011. He was found dead on the ground below the balcony of his home, what police initially claimed was suicide. Three post-mortem reports each came back with conflicting findings, with a government pathologist claiming at a fresh inquest in 2015 that the injuries sustained by Wanjiru were consistent with murder.

In an article published by ESPN linked below you can read about how troubled his personal life had become in the wake of his athletics fame, including being charged with threatening to kill his wife. The charges were later dropped, and several months later Wanjiru would be dead. Inquiries are still ongoing, with each passing year only further obfuscating the truth of his death.

As for his Olympic Record, the weather conditions at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, held in 2021 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, were stiflingly hot and very humid. Even the enormous talent of Eliud Kipchoge and his Nike Zoom VaporFly Next% 2 shoes couldn’t finish anywhere near Wanjiru’s time, winning in 2:08:38. This means Wanjiru’s Olympic Record will stand at least until the 2024 Paris Olympics, when the men’s marathon will be held on 10 August.

The weather will be relatively cool with lows of 14 degrees Celsius, although humidity may still not be ideal. The course itself has since been revealed, spectacularly taking competitors from Paris all the way to Versailles and back. It will have 438 metres of overall elevation and 436 metres of overall descent. Although many believe Eliud Kipchoge can take his third gold medal in the event, it remains to be seen whether he can go faster than Wanjiru when he ran on what was a considerably flatter course at the Beijing Olympics.

The shoes:                   

With the number of pictures from the 2008 Olympics, getting clear angles of Wanjiru was quite easy. The Nike runners he wore have distinct overlays at the front, which then streak upwards as they progress along the shoe. The upper has similar blocking at the rear, with a noticeable pop of red at the midpoint of the midsole.

This clearly identifies the shoes as the fulsomely named Nike Air Zoom Katana Rac3r III. These were extremely lightweight at only 159 grams, comparable to the Spiridon Gold of the eighties. It uses Zoom Air in the heel, but otherwise has Nike’s Phylon foam that the company had introduced years earlier.

Mesh comprises the upper, with sections of synthetic leather most likely for durability. The Air Zoom Katana Rac3r III also has a stability shank, which would help runners as their form starts fading towards the end of the marathon distance. It was very much a minimalist racing flat.

The model was released in many colourways. My personal favourite featured red and yellow flames along the upper, perhaps an unintentional nod to the Zoom Spectrum Plus worn by Paula Radcliffe. No retro yet, but as the shoe was released relatively recently it can still be found occasionally on eBay.