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Meet Kenyan athlete who drank vodka like water

Wilson Bungei alcoholism
Wilson Bungei. Photo/Eurosport
  • Were it not for alcoholism, life would be so different for Wilfred Bungei
  • Bungei was a close friend to the late Samuel Wanjiru
  • He recalls drinking a whole vodka bottle on the day Wanjiru passed on

Were it not for alcoholism, life would be so different for Wilfred Bungei, a former Kenyan middle-distance runner and Olympian.

His life story mirrors that of veteran runner, the late Samuel Wanjiru whose penchant for the bottle led to his untimely death just at the prime of his athletics career.  For Bungei though, he sadly recalls succumbing to alcoholism and it never hit him that he would have a different legacy outside the tracks courtesy of the brown bottle.

All that people recall today is how a legend nearly went to the drains due to alcoholism. Here is Bungei’s story.


He credits his primary school teachers to his athletics career. They discovered his talent in athletics and this revelation set him on a path to greatness. Besides, it was not surprising at all since his family has a history of athletics. Bungei represented Kenya in the 1998 junior championship which was a major achievement.

wilson bungei

Former 800m champion Wilson Bungei. Photo/

It was a moment he was proud of because it gave him the hope of following in his cousin’s steps Wilson Kipketer and his uncle Henry Rono. Besides, hailing from Kapsabet gave him so much drive. This is the hometown of big names like Pamela Jelimo, Kipchoge Keino among other stellar athletes.

He later enrolled at Samoei High School and he was selected for the Kenyan athletic team that he still remembers proudly. After winning the junior championship, he competed in a few more events in Italy before returning to Kenya to complete his schooling.

Bungei then left once more to pursue a career in athletics. During the Edmonton World Championship in 2001, he won a silver medal. In 2003 and 2008, he won two gold medals. His first medal, a silver one, provided him with a wealth of opportunities. An Italian manager, Gianni Demadonna spotted him he changed his whole life.

While some claim that his 2008 Olympic medal was his greatest accomplishment, Bungei contends that serving as team captain was the best thing that had happened to him.


The famed 800 meters champion continued to compete for two more years before calling in time. However, his legacy reverberated all through and it’s something he looks back to with a lot of pride.  However, the unexpected happened after retirement and it changed the legacy of a track superstar. Alcoholism took over and never let him off even for a minute until the last day.

Loneliness took a toll on him after retiring. Life was different now because he had a lot of idle time at home as opposed to his globetrotting which filled up his schedule.

“When I retired, my life became empty, I didn’t have much to do. So, I started filling the void with a bottle of wine, next time I would try two bottles and before I knew it, I was doing five litres of wine and other liquors,” he told KTN’s History Makers segment.

Wilson Bungei

Wilson Bungei. Photo/Nairobi News

What’s surprising is that Bungei and Wanjiru were great friends and they both drowned in the vice together. Wanjiru wasn’t as lucky because he ended up losing his life in a drunken stupor much as there are conflicting reports surrounding his death. The world 800, champion recalls imbibing too much Vodka on the day Wanjiru passed on.

“The day that my friend Samuel died, I was hospitalised for having drank one and a half litre of vodka in 15 minutes. I blacked out and I was rushed to the hospital,” he recalls. “I was treated and by 9 pm, I went home. At around four or five in the morning, a boy came knocking at my door and that is when he told me that Samuel is no more.”


It took the memories of a motor accident involving seven cars for and a hangover morning four months later for Wilson Bungei to battle alcoholism. He recalls September 20, 2012, as his last day of taking alcohol and seeking help thereafter. The legendary athlete says his best and most memorable moment in life is when he made this call to stop drinking.

Thirteen years later, he is convinced he drank enough and won’t drink anymore in his lifetime. What disheartens him is that he couldn’t save Wanjiru who clearly had a drinking problem. He tried running for a parliamentary seat in the Emgwen constituency but lost. Looking back, he is happy that he caught his alcoholism in time and dealt with it.

Teresa is a journalist with years of experience in creating web content. She is a wanderlust at heart, but an outgoing sports writer with focus on tennis, athletics, football, motorsports and NBA.

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