Samuel Kamau Wansiru of Kenya is shown after winning the men's marathon in this file photo from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.Jamie Squire/GETTY IMAGES
NAIROBI, KENYA — Kenyan Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru died in a fall from a balcony after a domestic dispute involving his wife and another woman, police said Monday.
One police official said Wanjiru committed suicide, while another said he jumped to stop his wife from leaving the house after she discovered him with another woman.
The 24-year-old runner died late Sunday after jumping from a balcony at his home in the town of Nyahururu, in the Rift Valley, said John Mbijiwe, the police chief in Kenya's Central Province.
“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, though 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.”
Ethiopian distance running great Haile Gebrselassie, a two-time Olympic 10,000-metre 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.
American marathon runner Ryan Hall posted on Twitter: “Incredibly sad news about Sammy. I am shocked and saddened.”
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Wanjiru became the first Kenyan to win a gold medal in the marathon, finishing in an Olympic-record two hours six minutes 32 seconds.
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-metre 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.
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 and maid. The runner denied all charges and was released on bail.
Jos Hermens, the manager of Gebrselassie and Bekele and one of the most respected long-distance experts in the field, said Wanjiru saw too much success too early in his career.
“It is incredibly sad. 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.
Wanjiru became the youngest runner to win four major marathons. In addition to the Olympics, he won in London 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.
“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.