Billions worldwide watched and applauded on Sunday as International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge presented Kenya’s Samuel Kamau Wanjiru with a gold medal for winning the men’s marathon race that brought the curtain down on a highly successful Beijing Olympic Games, both for the Chinese hosts and for Kenya.
The Kenyan flag was raised at the brand new 91,000-seater Beijing National Olympic Stadium and the Kenyan national anthem played after Belgian Rogge, accompanied by International Association of Athletics Federations’ president, Lamine Diack of Senegal, also presented bouquets of flowers to the 21-year-old Wanjiru, Morocco’s silver medallist Jaouad Gharib and Ethiopia’s Tsegay Kebede who won the bronze in the 42-kilometre race.
Wanjiru’s winning time of two hours, six minutes and 32 seconds was an Olympic record and also marked the fifth Kenyan gold medal at the Beijing Games that were the country’s most successful ever.
The win was also Kenya’s first in the marathon at the four-yearly Olympics.
Kenya finished the competition as the top African nation and an impressive 15th overall with 14 medals - five gold, five silver and four bronze.
The performance surpassed the previous best of nine medals (five gold, two silver and two bronze) achieved at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was also highlighted by the country’s first gold medals by women at the Games won by 19-year-old Pamela Jelimo in the 800 metres and 27-year-old Nancy Jebet Lagat in the 1,500 metres.
“From the start, I wanted to push my best but I had to save myself for the later stages of the race.
"In the heat it was difficult and the humidity made it harder but I was determined to finish strongly,” the 21-year-old from Nyahururu who has been training in Kenya and Japan said of his race on Sunday.
“In Kenya, we have many medals, but I’m so happy to be the first Kenyan to win an Olympic marathon gold medal. My next goal is to get the world record, maybe next year.”
Wanjiru was presented with the gold medal at the start of Sundayy’s official closing ceremony for the Games which started on August 8 and which saw China topple the United States of America to top the overall medals table with 100 medals, 51 gold, 21 silver and 28 bronze. USA followed with 36 gold, 38 silver and 36 bronze medals.
Russia had 23 gold medals, 21 silver and 28 bronze with Ethiopia the second most successful African country at 18th place with four gold, one silver and two bronze.
Besides Wanjiru’s gold on Sunday, Kenya’s other medals were won by: Gold – Wilfred Bungei (800m), Nancy Jebet Langat (1,500m), Brimin Kipruto (3,000m steeplechase), Pamela Jelimo (800m); silver – Catherine Ndereba (marathon), Eunice Jepkorir (3,000m steeplechase), Janeth Jepkosgei (800m), Asbel Kiprop (1,500m), Eliud Kipchoge (5,000m) and bronze – Richard Matelong (3,000m steeplechase), Edwin Soi (5,000m), Alfred Kirwa Yego (800m) and Micah Kogo (10,000m).
Kenya was represented in athletics, taekwondo, swimming, rowing and boxing.
The triumphant Kenyan team is expected back home on Wednedsday at 7.10 pm although Wanjiru, who travels to Japan on Monday for a sponsor’s engagement, arrives on Tuesday at 7.10 pm on an Emirates Airlines flight.
Kenya’s head of delegation at the Beijing Olympics, David Okeyo, on Sunday confirmed that the team would travel to Mombasa on Friday for the ceremonial return of the national flag to President Mwai Kibaki whom they will also present with the medals they won at the Games.
Last month, President Kibaki increased the cash awards for the medalists with gold medal winners getting Sh1.75 million, silver medalists Sh1,25 million and bronze medal winners Sh580,000.
“This was the greatest performance ever by Kenya at the Olympics and it surpasses the record of nine medals that was achieved at the Seoul Olympics in 1988,” Okeyo said.
“I would like to thank the athletes and officials for making the positive contribution to the performance and to the government and sponsors for their increased incentives.”
Sunday’s colourful closing ceremony, that saw the Olympic flag handed over to 2012 hosts, London, was attended by several world leaders including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, King Carl Gustaf of Sweden and the presidents of Iceland and Finland Olafur Ragnar Grimsson and Tarja Halonen respectively.
China’s success in hosting a successful Olympics in the face of accusations over its human rights record and skepticism over its ability to organize and incident-free Olympics drew admiration from Rogge and world leaders alike.
“Through the Games, the world learned more about China and China learned more about the world. Athletes from 204 National Olympic Committees came to these dazzling venues and awed us with their talent,” Rogge, a surgeon and former Olympics sailing athlete, said.