Sammy Wanjiru was the reigning Olympic champion. Hard as it was to believe in a country of great distance runners, Wanjiru was the only man from Kenya ever to have won a gold medal in the marathon. At the 2008 Beijing Games, Wanjiru set an Olympic record in winning the marathon in 2:06:32 on a blistering day that reached 86 degrees. Given the brutal conditions, many considered it the greatest marathon ever run, even though it was not a world record. By winning in Chicago last fall at age 23, Wanjiru became the youngest man ever to win four major marathons – the Olympics, Chicago in 2009 and 2010 and London in 2009.
Unfortunately he died yesterday by falling—or jumping—off a balcony. What struck me in the article I read were the words by his agent, Federico Rosa: “He had the special gift of the champion. “Besides a big talent, champions have what I could call an arrogance. They know they are stronger than the others. He was so focused on winning, not to be famous or get a lot of money, but just to show that he was the best. He wanted to show the world who is Sammy Wanjiru,” Rosa said.
I have often struggled with caring about winning at sports. It just doesn’t matter to me much of the time. I think of tennis or even hunting as a game, an exciting supplement to my life. But if I miss a shot, whether a ball or a bird, there is no serious consequence. I watch Nadal “dig deep” and try to emulate his determination. But I can’t do it. I know I should practice archery for hours, so that when I finally have that rare chance to hit the turkey, I will succeed. But I don’t, because something in me is lacking. My genetic capabilities aside, I don’t have what it takes to be a champion…or even a very high-level player.
Fortunately that deficiency is not lacking in other parts of my life, where I am motivated to succeed. I work hard at good relationships, career achievements, societal contributions, balancing my life’s activities, healthy diet and adequate exercise. But I am not driven to win in sport. I have friends who are. I see their killer instinct, their fierceness to dominate. That is what it takes. Do you have it? Do you want to be a champion?