When a small band of Eritrean-Americans who live in Chicago heard that national hero Zersenay Tadese was competing in their adopted city’s most famous race, they came out to watch and cheer for the man dubbed the “David Beckham of Eritrea”.  One such Tadese fan watched as the lead pack came whooshing by in the early stages of the race.

Afterwards, near the host hotel close by the finish line, she asked Merhawi Keflezighi, Eritrean-American agent to his famous runner brother Meb, how Zersenay had done.  When Hawi told her he had dropped out, she asked, ‘What about the other Eritrean in the race?’

“I told her there wasn’t any other Eritrean in the race,” said Hawi, “only Zersenay. “ ‘But there was another guy wearing the same uniform,’ she said.  She wasn’t a running fan, so to her this was just another international competition like the World Championships.  So if you’re wearing the same uniform that means you must be on the same team.”

Chicago 2013 - Heading to the Half
Chicago 2013 – Heading to the Half

Hawi had to explain that’s not how it works in the sport of foot-racing.  So notwithstanding that Moses Mosop, Micah Kogo and Mike Kigen were wearing identical “Kenya” colors on Sunday, they weren’t, in fact, the Kenyan team.  And no, eventual champion Dennis Kimetto and third-place finisher Sammy Kitwara, both Kenyans as well, were not together, though they wore the same yellow singlets over black shorts.  And surprisingly, while America’s Dathan Ritzenhein and Tariku Jufar of Ethiopia sported identical dark purple over black, they weren’t working together, either.  Only the all-red singlets with numbers P43 through P50 were on the same team in the sense that they were all official pacesetters.

The man the Eritrean-American woman saw wearing the same light blue-over-black uniform as Tadese was likely Ethiopia’s Ayele Abshero the 2012 Dubai Marathon champion who finished sixth yesterday in 2:10:10, though Merkebu Birke, also Ethiopia, and Michael Shelley of Australia were similarly turned out, as well.

In the sport of running people wearing identical uniforms have nothing in common with each other except a shoe company contract. That they were at least wearing somewhat different colors – though still confusing to non-running fans – is due in part to the 2005 ING New York City Marathon.

NYC 2005 - Who's with Whom?
NYC 2005 – Who’s with Whom?

In the final miles of that thrilling race the contest had been reduced to eventual second-place finisher #1 Hendrik Ramaala of South Africa; third-placer #2 American Meb Keflezighi;  eventual champion #3 Paul Tergat and fourth place finisher #23 Robert Cheriuyot, both of Kenya.  But anyone not aware of those national distinctions (seen in small print on the left side of their bib numbers) would have been hard pressed not to think they were all running for the same team, since they were all wearing the exact same outfit!

It was after that NYC Marathon that major marathon officials and shoe company reps got together to create the different colors we see on display these days at the majors.  But it can still be confusing to the uninitiated like our Eritrean-American friend in Chicago.

Kogo, Gebremariam, Desisa - Boston 2013
Kogo, Gebremariam, Desisa – Boston 2013

Similarly in Boston this spring the final mile came down to Kenya’s Micah Kogo (2nd place) Ethiopia’s Gebre Gebremariam (3rd) and champion Lelisa Desisa, also of Ethiopia.  But unless you knew better, you mighty have thought Kogo and Desisa were working together against Gebremariam. Why not?  Kogo and Desisa were outfitted in matching blue, while GG was wrapped in yellow.

Can you imagine other sports using this model?

If this same system was utilized In horse racing it would mean half the jockeys in the Kentucky Derby would be wearing identical colors, because they were each being sponsored by the same horseshoe company.  Try to follow a race that way.  It would be beyond baffling.

It makes you wonder why the World Marathon Majors –  because it’s the only professional umbrella organization running has — couldn’t establish something like a draft to bring runners of different nationalities into their orbits, and thereby represent their six cities in their events by wearing Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago or New York across their chests.  People consume sports by identifying in some way with the athletes.  But since running features mostly anonymous Kenyan and Ethiopian champions running but one time a year in these cities while representing nothing more than shoe companies, there is nothing to root for, even if it’s no more than some city’s name on their laundry.

At 22 miles - Kimetto & Mutai pulling free of Kitwara
At 22 miles – Kimetto & Mutai pulling free of Kitwara

Recall that Yao Ming was not a 7’6” Chinese basketball player, he was a 7’6” Houston Rocket basketball player.  Nearly 30% of Major League Baseball is made up of foreign players, but they’ve been co-opted into a system whereby Americans root for them like they were next door neighbors, because they represent the hometown team. Look how beloved Big Papi, David Ortiz, is in Boston, especially after last night’s game-tying eighth inning grand slam home run against the Detroit Tigers. He’s was born in the Dominican Republic, not East Boston. But it doesn’t matter, he’s a Boston Red Sox man now.

Why it is that running can’t get its act together to widen its fan base in some similar fashion remains odd.  We certainly need to protect and encourage shoe company logos and sponsorships, but we have to give people something to cheer for.  How about my city, my team for a start?


8 thoughts on “MY CITY, MY TEAM

  1. Thanks for any other excellent post. Where else may anybody get that kind
    of information in such an ideal way of writing?
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    1. Toni’s point stands, though. To a Sox fan, it doesn’t matter where he was born or where he lived before the Sox signed him; he plays for the Boston Red Sox and we love him for it! Maybe an even more pertinent example would be the CT born, raised, and educated Will Rodgers becoming Boston Billy. Rodgers won all over the world, but his Boston exploits endeared him to the city. My grandfather, who ran track in HS in the 50s but didn’t really follow running, can to this day only name four runners: Rodgers, both the Kelleys, and Clarence DeMar. I think it’s worth trying trying to hash out a model for making that adoption process something to strive for, instead of being an ad hoc kind of deal.

  2. I like the idea of the varying uniforms that the World Marathon Majors started. However, those singlets were only worn by a certain athlete for one race and so the uniform didn’t necessarily become associated with a particular athlete. And not that running fans would be dashing to the stored to pick up a Ritz singlet, but having more individualized singlets and making them available for purchase would allow fans to feel more of a connection to the men and women who make up the lead pack. (Remember the singlets with numbers back in the early 2000’s?) I’ve searched eBay plenty of times trying to find a Kenya national team singlet and when I do, it’s well over $100. Why not make those available to the general public?

    I’m not sure how well this city team idea would work since he marathon seems to always have a rotating cast of folks in the lead pack. What do you do with a guy/gal who comes out of nowhere? How are they put on a team?

    Runners need to generate more hype about the race and themselves. Press conferences for marathons are boring. We need personalities! The steeplechaser from Kenya, Kemboi, has that swagger that’s missing from distance running. Not to say that every runner has to come out and talk stuff to one another, but something to make people actually care about what’s going on in the race. And couple that with TV coverage that shows more than the lead pack. I ran Chicago so I didn’t see it on TV, but I read that the coverage was terrible because all they showed was the lead pack. It’s 2013, and if I can watch four NFL games at once via Sunday Ticket on my computer, why can’t we get split screens or PIP where we can watch both men’s and women’s lead packs? Why aren’t there stationary cameras that show how the men and women not in the lead pack are doing as they pass by certain points along the course? Why not use the athlete identifier pointers like they do in NASCAR so we can distinguish runners from one another in the pack? Why are announcers not as excited as Toni was when he called Chicago a few years ago (“Look at the balls on this guy!”)? The technology and enthusiasm to make all of this happen are there, but it all has to be unleashed.

  3. The team concept is long overdue in our sport. Although national team competition made for great viewing when the USA was competing against communist bloc nations!

  4. Running should take a lesson from the UFC, the fastest growing professional sport when it comes to gate receipts. They have developed the personalities of their contracted athletes by giving them nicknames – Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell, Randy “The Natural” Couture”, Johnny “Bones” Jones; Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. They might sound goofy but a spectator ends up choosing one over the other based on their good guy/bad guy personas. They are getting Hollywood movie contracts and product endorsements in TV commercials. When is the last time that you saw a Kenyan drinking Gatorade in a TV commercial? How about never. Runners tend to be quiet, humble warriors. That does not sell tickets or interest to non-runners.

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