Wanjiru and Domestic Violence: the greater tragedy

A friend of mine just sent me the following email, asking a couple of important questions:

Are people extremely sympathetic about Sammy Wanjiru's death simply because he was an amazing runner, one of the best runners ever? You are such a voice of reason and I respect what you have to say. That's why I read your blog. Where is the sympathy for someone who likely was abused? Nobody has mentioned that he may have been an abuser and may have been trying, yet again, to hurt his wife, maybe even kill her.

If his wife had been beaten in the past, and if he was about to go for another round of beating, isn't she a little better off right now?

My last post was a tribute to Wanjiru, and in that post, I wrapped the violence of his life up with his greatness, preferring to see them together rather than apart. While I mentioned that such a move was dangerous, perhaps glossing over unconscionable acts of spousal abuse and violence, the primary purpose of the post was to lionize Wanjiru, to remember his greatness in spite of his demons.

My friend's email helped me understand that this reaction is insufficient. While the details of what happened that night are still unknown, sadly abuse of women in East Africa and around the world (including here in the US) continues to be a persistent problem. While there are always exceptions to statistics, the statistics show that it is likely that Wanjiru's wife (and perhaps also his multiple lovers) were victims of abuse. The global statistics are staggering. In every country where reliable, large-scale studies have been conducted, between 10 and 69 per cent of women report they have been physically abused by an intimate partner in their lifetime. East Africa, unfortunately, is worse than many other places.

As we mourn Wanjiru's death, then, we ought also to mourn the ongoing violence towards women in Africa and across the globe. His death shows that this is not only problem for feminism, but a problem for marathoning, a problem for all of us.

It is likely that in upcoming weeks, blame for his death with be placed somewhere. Maybe we will find out that he abused his wife and she killed him out of fear for her own. Likely blame will be placed at her feet as well. Although we should not overlook the power that individuals have to control their own destiny and their violent reactions, we should also not forget that this tragedy is reflective of a much greater and sadly persistent social problem: Wanjiru, his wife, and now all of us, have become victims of domestic violence.

Domestic violence and abuse took a beautiful runner from the world last weekend. It damages the lives of countless women and families across the world. It will continue to rob us of our future so as long as this side of the story remains untold and unremembered.

Read more about violence towards women in Kenya here.
Global factsheet on violence against women.

Fortunately, there are tremendous folks like the Somali activist Dekha Ibrahim Abdi working on these problems in Kenya directly. While we should remember Sammy Wanjiru for his athletic accomplishments, we should never forget that athletics is a game that takes place in a larger world with greater heroes.


  1. I have always found it curious on how people pick their heros. My #1 heros have always been my Mom and Dad - Who struggled, fought and worked hard on their marriage. They made it through some dark times and ended up with something pretty special.

    Although I do admire many people's accomplishments - Sammy included - It is more on the level that you appreciate a fine work of art or a great symphony - Performances can still inspire - even if we do not want to be like these people.

    I appreciate Sammy the artist

    I really do not know Sammy the person

    Abuse - Physical, sexual and psycological happens every day in almost every neighborhood. It is saddening.



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