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Japan in Wanjiru - In Conclusion.....

by Brett Larner

I don't expect that many people will take the considerable time necessary to read the full texts of all four interviews in this series.  I plan to edit the most important quotes from Samuel Wanjiru’s Japanese mentors and colleagues together into a cohesive account of his career from the Japanese point of view, but in the meantime, looking at the commonalities between the interviews and other previously-published details this story emerges, incomplete as it is:
  • Wanjiru was discovered by the Japanese scout Shunichi Kobayashi and sent to Sendai Ikuei H.S. in 2002.
  • At Sendai Ikuei, he was educated and developed by Takao Watanabe, who focused not only on development as an athlete but also on psychological and personal development.  Watanabe receives unanimous credit in Japan as the primary influence on Wanjiru's mental and spiritual growth.  Watanabe introduced Wanjiru to Kenyan Stephen Mayaka, a longtime resident of Japan who came to assist Wanjiru in his life and career in Japan.
  • Wanjiru showed the first major sign of his future potential when he set a stage record of 22:40 for 8.1075 km at the 2004 National High School Ekiden Championships, helping the Sendai Ikuei team set the overall team course record.
  • Following this performance, Watanabe negotiated with the Toyota corporation and the head coach of its Toyota Kyushu ekiden team, Barcelona Olympics marathon silver medalist Koichi Morishita, for Wanjiru to receive a place on the company’s team beginning in April, 2005 after his graduation from Sendai Ikuei.  In return for a regular salary, bonuses, housing and other support Wanjiru agreed to be in Japan at least 180 days out of the year and to run in races when asked by the company, including ekidens.  In accepting, he became the first non-Japanese athlete to run for Toyota Kyushu.
  • Within five months of coming under Morishita’s coaching Wanjiru achieved noteworthy results including the half-marathon Japanese all-comers’ record, pacing his teammate Yu Mitsuya to the domestic 10000 m record, and setting the 10000 m junior world record and half-marathon world record.  Toyota Kyushu team manager Katsushi Fuchiwaki accompanied Wanjiru on his trips for overseas races.  Wanjiru became the motivational leader of the Toyota Kyushu team, popular with the other athletes and readily socializing with them, including the customary drinking parties.
  • At some point following his European debut Wanjiru began to be solicited for representation by European athletes’ representatives.  After some irregularities involving Athletics Kenya’s cancellation of one AR’s contract with Wanjiru, Italian agent Federico Rosa signed a deal with Wanjiru.
  • After injuries including a stress fracture which kept him out of action for most of 2006, Wanjiru started 2007 off by breaking the half-marathon world record twice in rapid succession.  Fuchiwaki again accompanied Wanjiru on these trips.
  • Rosa negotiated with the ING New York City Marathon for Wanjiru to debut there in the fall of 2007 without consulting or negotiating with Toyota Kyushu, whose contract with Wanjiru pre-dated Rosa’s.  Toyota Kyushu did not allow Wanjiru to run New York as the trip would violate his contractual obligation to be physically present in Japan for 180 days out of the year.  Instead, he debuted a month later at the local Fukuoka International Marathon.  Rosa received a percentage of Wanjiru’s earnings from Fukuoka.  Wanjiru’s taxes on his earnings from Fukuoka were for whatever reason not filed according to procedure and he incurred a substantial tax debt of roughly $65,000 at current exchange rates.
  • Morishita did not plan for Wanjiru to run the marathon at the Beijing Olympics, but after Wanjiru returned from a trip back to Kenya in early 2008 he was determined to do so.  Following this trip, Morishita grew concerned about business ventures with which Wanjiru had become involved with members of his family.  Wanjiru ran the London Marathon in April and was selected for the Kenyan Olympic team.
  • After London Wanjiru returned to Toyota Kyushu, then left for training in Kenya.  Immediately following his departure, a law office in Tokyo notified Toyota Kyushu that Wanjiru was resigning his position and would not return to the team.  Fuchiwaki likewise left Toyota Kyushu and announced that he would become Wanjiru’s manager.  All parties interviewed fell short of explicitly saying that they believed Fuchiwaki had arranged the legal aspects of breaking Wanjiru’s contract with Toyota Kyushu.
  • Wanjiru won the Beijing Olympics and Fuchiwaki signed a sponsorship deal with the Meiji Seika corporation for Wanjiru to endorse its SAVAS sports supplement.  Wanjiru returned to Japan with Fuchiwaki shortly after Beijing to pay off a portion of his tax debt and to begin promotional activities for SAVAS, but over the following months he began to become difficult to handle and refused to meet his contractual obligations.  He publicly claimed he was not receiving the money he was promised by Meiji Seika.
  • With Toyota Kyushu out of the picture Rosa became the pre-existing contract holder with regard to Fuchiwaki’s business relationship with Wanjiru.  There was a total lack of coordination between Rosa and Fuchiwaki.  Fuchiwaki began to develop a bad reputation within the industry in Japan and Meiji Seika soon terminated its sponsorship, privately claiming to have been scammed.  The situation culminated in a promise that Fuchiwaki had a contract for Wanjiru to appear at the 2009 Sapporo International Half Marathon.  Wanjiru did not show, and his business relationship with Fuchiwaki ended.
  • With major wins and the accompanying fame and fortune in 2009, Wanjiru’s personal troubles began to develop.  A lack of personal guidance and protection back home in Kenya meant he was subject to constant demands from friends and family for money and to go drinking.  His home was reported to have been assaulted by armed thieves.  By 2010 he was in poor condition, dropping out of the 2010 London Marathon.
  • Following London, he began negotiating with Toyota Kyushu and Morishita through Mayaka for a formal return to the team that fall.  His tax debt remaining a major barrier to his entry to Japan, the Toyota corporation agreed to a plan to pay off the debt against Wanjiru’s salary once he returned, a plan by which he would be permitted to reside in Japan again.  The plan was formalized for him to return to rejoin Toyota Kyushu in December, 2010 with more freedom to pursue his own goals than under his original contract.
  • In less than peak condition Wanjiru won a hard-fought 2010 Chicago Marathon.  His friend and personal companion Yasuto Kimura found him acting strangely throughout the week in Chicago and noted an apparent distance in Wanjiru’s relationship with Rosa.
  • When Wanjiru was arrested in December, 2010 for an alleged incident with his wife and household staff involving an AK-47 assault rifle the Toyota corporation immediately withdrew its offer for his return, and his door out of Kenya back to Japan was permanently and irrevocably closed.
  • With Japan no longer an option available to him and additional incidents including a car accident in early 2011, shortly after the loss of his course record in London and the sensational times at the Boston Marathon Wanjiru died in a reportedly drunken fall from the second floor of his home.

So, what to draw from this?  It's an incomplete story like Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock, a series of suggestive clues that seem to point in one direction but don't add up to a coherent account of what happened.  While some of the details here are emerging for the first time to fill in gaps there is still a good deal missing from those who dealt with Wanjiru in his life outside of Japan.  It’s not a question of blaming anyone; Wanjiru was an adult and was responsible for the decisions he made in his life.  At the same time he was partly the victim of a clash between larger forces.  Japan is in some ways, both good and bad, the Shire of the athletics world, a separate, self-contained environment, happily functioning with limited involvement with or concern for the wider world of the sport.  In this environment Wanjiru flourished, but while the people responsible for him there shaped his thinking and discipline into those of a champion, their self-admitted lack of experience with foreign athletes and naïve assumptions about the degree of Wanjiru’s internalization of Japanese cultural traits combined with a distrust of how the business side of international athletics operates to create a situation in which they were unprepared to cope with everything that came with having an athlete of that stature on their hands.  Rosa, for his part, understood exactly how great, and lucrative, Wanjiru could be and justifiably wanted to take him from the countryside of rural Fukuoka to the main streets of the world’s major cities and all the fame and fortune that would bring, but apparently with little understanding of and even less respect for the Japanese system and for Wanjiru’s contractual and personal obligations to the people in it who brought him up from nothing.  And waiting back home a third side, the people who would devour him.

Between these forces came Fuchiwaki.  The Toyota corporation’s sole condition for granting an interview with Morishita was that I not interview Fuchiwaki.  I have honored this and, as such, that part of the story is also missing.  But it is hard not to see him as a sort of Smeagol figure in this story, a hapless Shireling who by chance came into contact with something powerful and precious and did whatever it took to try to keep it within his grasp, even when the desire to hold onto the power turned him into something else and took him places he did not understand.  A more sympathetic view of Fuchiwaki might cast him as Secondo to Rosa’s Pascal, but regardless of who or what Fuchiwaki really was, if he was actually the catalyst for Wanjiru's departure then Rosa could not have asked for a better way to get rid of Toyota Kyushu’s claim to Wanjiru.  Did he realize it?

In the end maybe it comes down to a question of character.  What is striking in these interviews is the taking of personal responsibility, the credit given to others and the downplaying of one's own credit, the admissions of mistakes.  From Kimura: “People are saying that I might have been the one who was coaching Wanjiru after he left the team, but it wasn’t like that at all.”  From Morishita: “I should have done a better job on the management side.  He needed people supporting him who would have taken the steps to prevent this outcome.  We should have done it, unfortunately.”  From Watanabe: “If I had been there for him…” 

On the other side, how many people in Kenya and Italy have stepped forward to take credit for Wanjiru, to say, “I was Samuel Kamau wanjiru mentor from 1998 and untill the day he went to Japan in 2002,” or “I helped him with some advice till the period of Beijing, without adding, “If I had been there for him…”?  A taking of a share of the credit without a commensurate share of the responsibility.  And, correct me if I'm wrong, but a notable public silence after a vague “We got him out of this environment,” with no mention of Wanjiru’s death on his agency website or Twitter feed, from the person most responsible for Wanjiru’s career  post-Japan, the one who made the most money from him, his agent, Federico Rosa.  It’s tempting to end with Morishita’s words echoing in the silence: “The people who were supporting Sam were only motivated by the money flowing around him, not from the heart, and they didn't give him the kind of support he really needed.  You hear a lot of disturbing things about his family too, his wife, and I can't help but think that he should have had more people around him who cared about his soul.

But the most important thing in this story is not blame or dollars, it's the loss of the dream.  Wanjiru’s National High School Ekiden stage record survived a serious threat yesterday, but his records are already fading into memory one by one, from London to Chicago and even on to the domestic record he helped his teammate Mitsuya set.  His Olympic record is sure to fall in London.  As the name Samuel Wanjiru disappears into legend, a slow pullback and fade as the finish line recedes into the distance, the parting words of Mitsuya and his teammate Masato Imai remain a simple but lasting expression of the loss of someone who inspired us all to more:

Imai: I wanted to run a marathon with him. 
Mitsuya: That’s exactly what I was going to say.  We’re not the same level athlete as him yet, but more than anything I wish I could have had the chance to run with him again, in a marathon.
Imai:  Together.  I really wanted that.  If it had been in the Olympics it would have been the best.
Mitsuya: Yeah, especially in the Olympics.
Imai: The next Olympics, or the one after that.  I wanted to race him on the Olympic stage.

(c) 2011 Brett Larner
all rights reserved


Scott Douglas said…
Beautiful, thanks.
Joe B said…
I actually did read all the interviews and found the story fascinating and moving. Thank you!
Rafael Alencar said…
I'm frpm Brazil. Congratulations! Wonderful history!

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