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MEB'S WIN: ONE FOR THE MELTING POT

by Dave Milner | published 11.02.09

Usually someone has to do something, or in this case write something, that ruffles my feathers substantially for me to pen an article that does not pertain to runners or running in the state of Tennessee. Today, CNBC.com writer, Daren Rovell (his picture was in the tease on the TR home page), published something on his SportsBiz blog that did just that. In fact it really, well, pissed me off.

Rovell's latest piece, titled "Marathon's Headline Win Is Empty" (click here to read the article) essentially belittled the significance of Meb Keflezighi's win yesterday at the New York City Marathon. And that, my friends, is fightin' talk.

In case you hadn't heard, 34-year-old Keflezighi - born in the tiny East African nation of Eritrea, but a naturalized U.S citizen since 1998 - provided us with the first American winner of the prestigious New York City Marathon since Alberto Salazar in 1982.

However, Rovell, in the first of several ill-founded assertions, writes that "the fact that he's not American-born takes away from the magnitude of the achievement the headline implies."

Really? Does It?

The win is significant. And in a sport as objective, as simple, as - I hesitate to use this term - black and white, as distance running, where only the clock decides winners and also-rans, I have a hard time seeing how someone's place of birth can lessen the quality of their performance. Meb was first across the line. He was the first U.S citizen to be first across the line in the Big Apple's marathon in 27 years. It's significant.

"It has been well-documented," Rovell writes in ill-founded assertion #2, "that since the mid-80’s, Americans haven’t had much success in the marathon."

Really? because as recently as 2004, at the Athens Olympics, Keflezghi won the silver medal in the marathon. Admittedly, Keflezighi's silver was the first Olympic medal in that event for a U.S. man since Frank Shorter took silver in 1976. And granted, the '90s formed a rather bleak decade, but Keflezghi's success yesterday was hardly an isolated occurrence. The last five years have seen U.S marathoners do more than just close the gap on the rest of the world. They have been mixing it up with the Kenyans and Ethiopians. Ryan Hall clocked 2:06:17 at the 2007 London Marathon, finishing 5th among what was arguably the most competitive field ever assembled. He was also 3rd at Boston this year.

On the women's side, Deena Kastor, won a bronze in the marathon at the 2004 Olympics. The following year she won the Chicago Marathon. The next year, 2006, she clocked 2:19:36 at the London Marathon. Kara Goucher finished 3rd woman at the 2008 NYC Marathon in her debut at the distance and followed that up with 3rd place at Boston this year.

Hall, Kastor and Goucher were all born in the U.S. Hopefully, they meet Rovell's criteria as Americans. But Hall and Kastor regularly train with Meb so you never know!

Rovell really swings for the fences when imputing that Keflezighi is "like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league." This only serves to demonstrate his lack of research and and his meager knowledge of the sport.

Keflezghi has lived in California for the last 22 years, having gone to middle school and high school in San Diego, and attended college at UCLA, where he won four NCAA titles in one year: the Cross-Country Championship, Indoor 5,000 meters Championship, and double victories in the 5000 and the 10,000 meters at the Outdoor Championships in 1997. He did not return to his war-ravaged birthplace until 2002, some 16 years after fleeing as a refugee at the age of eleven.

Perhaps Rovell is unaware that Frank Shorter, who was the last American to win the Olympic marathon back in 1972, was not born in the United States? That's right. He was born, of all places, in Munich, the German city that played host to that Olympiad.

The last American to win the NYC Marathon, Alberto Salazar, was born in Cuba. Did you know that, Mr Rovell? I don't remember anyone whining about him not being American.

Two years ago, almost to the day, Keflezighi suffered from severe dehydration and fractured his hip during the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials in Central Park. He hobbled to a disappointing 8th place finish. He also lost his training partner and close friend in Ryan Shay, who died of a heart attack 5 miles into the race. It took an Herculean effort on Keflezighi's part to recover from that terrible day, physically and emotionally.

So when Keflezighi, less than a mile after breaking away from Kenya's Robert Cheruiyot, the 4-time Boston Marathon champion, made the symbol of the cross on his USA singlet as he whizzed by the spot where Shay ran his last step, ardent running fans noted the significance of the gesture. Apparently it was lost on Rovell.

"The positive sign," Rovell writes, "was that some American-born runners did extremely well in yesterday’s men’s race." This is an understatement of epic proportions, and firmly demonstrates his ignorance of the sport. Americans provided six of the top 10 finishers, the best U.S showing in the Big Apple since the race started offering serious prize money. Of course, Rovell probably wasn't including Abdi Abdirahman, who was born in Somalia (but grew up in Arizona). He finished 9th.

I suggest Mr Rovell reads this article by Sports Illustrated's David Epstein, and then email Keflezghi a letter of apology. Maybe copy Abdi on it too. I recommend he emails, rather than calls, because it's hard to talk with your foot in your mouth.

Meb is an inspiration to all new Americans and his story demonstrates the power of the American Dream.

And as SI's Tim Layden wrote in 2005, "there is, of course, no place quite like New York to win a race, to wave a flag and to cast aside stubborn labels." Now, if Mr Rovell could just cast aside his, the world would be a better place.

TR Editor DAVE MILNER was not born in America either. But there there the similarites between he and Meb end. A competitive runner with a modest marathon PR of 2:45, he is a citizen of the United Kingdom. Despite not owning a spaceship, the U.S government have bestowed upon him the title of 'Permanent Resident Alien'.


NOTE: The day after this article was published, and after Rovell doubtless received dozens or angry emails, he published a half-hearted apology on his blog. Click here to read it.