In Defense of East Africans

One of my greatest desires in running is to witness an American winning a major marathon. With an elite field in Boston once again this spring and all of American pride and determination that will be found, notable contenders such as Shalane Flanagan and Meb Keflezighi might really have a chance to get the win they are training so hard for. However, should an Ethiopian, Kenyan, Eritrean or Ugandan take the win as we’ve come to expect in past couple decades I will not begrudge them that victory and here’s why.

From Abebe Bikila to Haile Gebrselassie and all of the other East African marathon greats too, there is just something so special about the passion and love they have for running. Enjoying the comforts of first world living in the US it is almost impossible to understand what it must be like growing up in a hot, poor, often small, village in an East African country, yet great runner after great runner emerges. There are many theories floating around and no small amount of science to back up a number of them, as to why they seem to have an unnatural ability to run so well over distance. I’m not going to delve into that too much here, but feel free to do some research of your own on the countless articles and books written on the effects of high altitude, painful African tribal rituals, constant travel by foot, or even the chance at wealth and fame, just some of the many factors often cited. I would like to take a brief look at some of these great runners whom I feel compelled to support, regardless of nationality.

Abebe Bikila, the first African to win a marathon, took the Olympic gold in 1960. He was not supposed to be on the team but due to an injury suffered playing football, is compatriot had to withdraw and he boarded a plane to Rome just in time. He ran the race, or at least most of it, in bare feet and by pulling ahead at 500 meters to go he sprinted to the finish. Instantly a hero back home and internationally, he went on to win the next Olympic marathon as well. Certainly he is one definite factor in the rise to marathon prominence in Ethiopia and other African nations as well. Beyond his heroics in the race, the words he had to speak after cement him as a hero to me. After the race, when Bikila was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, “I wanted the whole world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism.” That’s pride I can get behind. After enduring a horrible car crash in which he became quadriplegic and after surgery, paraplegic, he had this to say “Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily.” Abebe was the start and following in the footsteps of a man like him is certainly inspirational. Much like the running boom seen in the United States after Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic Marathon Gold, Africa saw a boom in running and more specifically, in winning. It wasn’t immediately seen in the US, due to cost and accessibility, I would surmise. By the end of the 80’s though, both the New York and Boston marathons had been won by a Kenyan named, Ibrahim Hussein. For Boston this would be the first in a trend, 14 of the next 16 marathons were won by African runners. It wasn’t until 1994 that an African woman would claim a major marathon victory, but when Tegla Loroupe broke the tape in The New York Marathon a whole new wave of African contenders were arguably inspired and subsequently unleashed on the U.S. marathon circuit. Outside of the U.S. this amazing trend was blossoming as well, in Europe and Japan. What started with Bikila continues to wow the world today. Though I’ve long heard grumbles and gripes since before I was even a runner, I don’t share the view that many Americans have adopted. I don’t see their frustration as bigoted or racist in most cases, just a hurt national pride. We love sports and athletics here in the United States and usually, we dominate  the rest of the world in them. But when it comes to distance running, we’ve lost the edge we once had, us younger folks, we’ve only read about it. I felt compelled to spell out my own support of the East African distance runners, not because they need my voice, but because I need to voice the respect I hold for them. If you want to complain and grumble about the lack of American’s winning titles, look no further than the football playing children nationwide who are encouraged to use running abilities to out-sprint one another for brief spells on a field, or simply look at your couch, it’s probably well used. We have only ourselves to blame, the African runners are there, urging us on, setting records and winning races. If for nothing else then, I support them for at least keeping the sport alive while we’ve let it slowly die. Though the U.S. is in the midst of another big running boom right now some say, it’s surely of a different type. While the 70’s ushered in competition for the masses and new world bests in the States, the 2000-2010’s have brought a different kind of running, a lot of new runners and a lot less desire for speed in most of them. It’s time we took an American challenge back to Boston, New York, Chicago, Houston and LA but with many thanks to the Kenyans, Ugandans, Ethiopians, Eritreans and company for keeping the racing competitive while we’ve focused on sports with balls and eating cheeseburgers.

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