Saturday, November 13, 2010

2010 New York City Marathon, Meb Kiflezghi, Running & Eritrea: A perspective

     The impact of an Athlete in any given sport can be tremendous towards others. It also matters how the athletes handle their long-term careers in order to make a difference in the lives of other runners.  Eritrean born and American raised Meberhatom Kiflezghi is a unique individual who I have had the pleasure of knowing for a long time. What Meb as he is known brings to the table is the fact that he thinks of his sport in a bigger frame of mind than any other athlete I have come across. His vision for success is a great attribute to his ability as a disciplined person. He also has been able to draw a great picture of what it feels like to be a successful individual by making decisions that are honest and beneficial to him, his family and community. What I am about to do is use his success as a model for all immigrants and especially Eritreans, so that more young people can look up to his story and strive to be positive citizens of their respective countries and community.

      On November 7th, 210 while witnessing the New York City Marathon as a credentialed media member, it gave me a great pleasure to see first hand what most people don’t get a chance to see. I have covered almost every sport as a journalist including 10K events and track and field events in the past, however this would make it my first big city marathon and just to be in New York City to feel the excitement of this event has to be one of the most memorable moments in my life. As a bonus in witnessing history, I had a first hand look at probably one of the greatest runners of the sport announce his retirement after dropping out of the NYC marathon earlier that day. 

MEB: Maintain Excellent Balance

Ok! Now I want to get back to Meb and talk about my view of how he has had an impact in the sport of running, as an Eritrean-American (Immigrant) and as an individual who has been very powerful in making sure his goals have been met. He has been able to maintain excellent balance in his life as his slogan for his newly formed foundation says.  To all youngsters and future generations that in order to achieve success where ever it may be, you have to believe in yourself and can’t be bothered by the small things that get in your way.  Why is Meb’s story different than other athletes in his sport? I will make good use of his latest book to answer this question point-by-point.

1. Meb came to America and attended high school as a regular student like everyone else. He had no previous running experience and joined his high school track team as a raw talent. He was a soccer player who took matters into his own hands to be an athlete in a different sport after he was not being fairly treated on the soccer field. In his book a quote that he mentions goes like this “ Running is like Life. You start at the same place with your fellow runners. You will finish at the same place. How you do is largely up to you. If you win you congratulate your team and yourself. If you lose, you evaluate how to improve. You can’t make excuses like, “he did not pass me the ball” or “The coach did not put me in.” It’s on you that is the beauty of the sport.” He was encouraged by a friend to take up running on a full time basis.

2. Meb always appreciates a higher being. He thanks god when he is up and when he is down and his title for his book says it all. “Run to win” a partial quote from the bible on Corinthians 9:24 “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win.” So whatever your religion may be, it is always wise to fear, respect and thank god. But always focus on your goals and desires to be the best that you can be.

3. Meb put his land of origin and his adopted homeland on the map in a field that had been dominated by Kenyans, Ethiopians and Moroccans. While historically both Eritrea and the United States aren’t known for the sport of running, Meb was able to use his skills and hard work along with the opportunity that came along with it to help the USA get to the top of the running scene. He also helped create a running and athletics phenomena in his land of origin Eritrea. He inspired many runners by his actions. In appreciation to Meb, the most famous Eritrean athlete and another incredible human being said this about Meb,
“ Meb and I had our shining moment at the 2004 Olympic games in Athens. Those of us, who know Meb, know he is a very giving person who loves interacting with people. In person, via e-mail and by phone. Meb advises me and my Eritrean teammates on many matters related  to running. I was very happy to see him earn an Olympic medal and win the New York City marathon.”

What other pioneering runners did for their countries, Meb did for Eritrea and the United States. The story of Meb bridges a gap between two countries that have historical foreign policy disagreements. Like many other immigrants before him Meb and the rest of us Eritrean Americans should strive to do the same and in order to do so, it is encouraged that young people respect the value of life and the love and respect of family, god/allah, and the discipline that requires to be a humble & successful person.

On Sunday November 7th, 2010 at the New York City marathon, I witnessed a lot of positive things. As a former three sports high school athlete I recall during wrestling tournaments the competitive spirit was very highly driven but during the week of the regional and State tournaments, the opportunity to meet and build a relationship with your competitors and other schools coaches was something that flashed back in my mind. So, here I am in the media room and throughout the hotel where the athletes congregated, the headquarters of the ING New York City marathon in the heart of Manhattan, and I witness some of the greatest athletes like Haile Gebereslassie, Kaled Khanougi and 2004 Athens Olympic marathon gold medalist Stefano Baldini of Italy and others just enjoying each other in the spirit of camaraderie and affection and respect for one another that you mostly see in team sports. All the runners had this unique way about them in how they communicated with each other and respected one another but when it came time to compete like the biblical quote from Meb's book above everyone had to “Run to win”.
The blogger with 2004 Marathon Gold & Silver Medalists Meb and Italian Stefano Baldini

     During the press conference when many media outlets were covering the post marathon reactions the organizers brought in the athletes turn by turn and Legendary runner Haile Gebreslassie announced he was retiring at which point everyone was quite and shocked since it was not expected, but Haile vowed that it was time to hang it up and pass on the baton to the younger generation. Then Meb came in as a defending champion even though he finished a very respectable 6th, place. Meb was even surprised at the fact that Haile would announce his retirement but in a show of respect and admiration for Haile, Meb was very saddened and surprised and spoke of how he had influenced him as a runner. Meb is a class act and what Haile did for his country and running Meb was emulating for his two countries of Eritrea and the United States.With the thought in mind what if Eritrean Zeresenay Tadesse came to New York City and how would he fare? I proceeded to ask Meb a question which I wanted a reaction to. I also calculated the fact that the winner of the NYC marathon Gebre Gebremariam made his debut in the marathon race for the first time. Just like the many other potential Eritrean runners this guy comes from cross country and it was his first marathon ever. My question to Meb was as follows,

Q. Just like you mentioned Haile was your inspiration like he is for many other people, you're an inspiration to many runners, including half marathon world champion in Zersenay Tadesse. And Gebre Gebremariam, this was his first marathon, and he was a half marathon runner. So do you think chances are very good for people like Zersenay Tadesse to come and run in these types of races?

MEB KEFLEZIGHI: Thanks for the nice comments. I always try to be the best that I can as a human being. If you do the right things, things will fall in places. I know Zersenay Tadesse hasn't hit the home run on the marathon, but he's definitely done five times the world champion, and 58:38 I think is the world record. So his day will come. And Gebremariam, he just I remember on First Avenue he was like, come on, let's go. Because he asked me for advice right when we laid down in the tent, what do we need to do? I said, be patient on First Avenue. I remember I was behind, he said, come on, let's go, let's go. I tried to go with him. But he was able to connect with the other guys. It's all about passing the knowledge. Give them good advice, and hopefully like you said I inspire some people. They'll inspire others to do the best they can. It's great to see. The ING New York City Marathon is not an easy thing.

Immediately following that question I was getting bombarded by some of the press members and other folks that came and introduced themselves and proceeded to ask who I was talking about and how do you spell his name? I said Zersenay Tadesse and he can be currently found in the top two of the IAAF athlete of the year voting if you go to the IAAF website. Lo and behold the next day I saw on the website that Zeresenay Tadesse along with 4 other athletes were chosen to be in the competition for IAAF athlete of the year. Zeresenay, thanks to all the votes from those that know he is a hard working Eritrean hero but also one of the greatest runners of our time, decided to vote for him as the top leader of the IAAF vote. It was a pleasure to explain to some of these folks about Eritrea and most of them were somewhat aware of it thanks to Meb. What made it even sweet for me was after I got home that evening I saw in the news where Teklemariam Medhin along with Kidane Tadesse (Zeresenay’s younger brother), Samuel Tsegai , Kiflom Sium, and Tesfayohannes Mesfin of Eritrea finished in the top ten at ‘Cross Internacional de Atapuerca’ which witnessed the shock defeated of  World Cross Country champion Kenyan Joseph Ebuya as he was beaten by Eritrea’s Teklemariam at the end of the race. The rest of the team finished in 3rd, 5th, 9th, & 10th place giving Eritrea hope to be the next nation in the region to join the long and middle distance running surge that has long been dominated by the Kenyans and Ethiopians.
A book that I recommend to everyone who wants to be inspired. The story of an Eritrean-American athlete.

     Finally, I would like to say that Meb has been an inspiration to many like Zeresenay after him and the many more to come. I also would like to say that Merhawi and the entire kiflezghi family have left a long legacy for humanity through their support of Meb. His wife and beautiful daughters are also a pleasure to be around. It does truly take a village to raise a family and my hope by writing this blog is to inspire other Eritrean and non-Eritreans to work hard in whatever they do in life. I recommend Meb’s book highly. It is informative, educational and can relate to many other Eritrean-American families stories in some fashion. Congratulations to Meb on his foundation the "MEB Foundation" which according to him will continue to educate, support and create healthy families. Donations from the book will be given to the foundations work. 

The writer of the blog currently serves at the EAAA information desk officer.

For Eri-International sports blog
Mike Seium


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