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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?