Sunday, August 24, 2008

Marathons and motivation

I've managed to squeeze a few hours of Olympics into my schedule in the past week, including much of the live broadcast of the marathon. Much hype surrounded this event in the American press, as one of our athletes--Ryan Hall--was considered a relative favorite to attain a medal. The New Yorker even ran a story about him, suggesting that he represented the changing of the guard in American distance running, with our country finally bringing to the Games a team capable of threatening the African nations for distance running dominance. [As a side note, not much recognition in that article was afforded to Meb Keflezighi, the American who brought home silver from the last Olympics; perhaps we Americans hesitated to claim an athlete with a decidedly African name?]

As I watched the marathon unfold, though, it became rapidly evident that the Kenyans and the Ethiopians would duke it out for the medals, while the American hopefuls would likely fade into double-digit placing (except for Dathan Ritzenhein, who graduated from my alma mater, finishing ninth). While I listened to the relatively strong commentary on the race, I pondered why it was that Americans continue to lag behind their African counterparts, when it seems increasingly that their training regimens and various other modifiable factors are indistinguishable from the Kenyans. Then, all of a sudden, one of the announcers provided me with an epiphany.

He described how Kenya has in recent months suffered tremendous civil strife following a controversial presidential election, resulting in what is essentially a civil war between the country's two major tribes. The Kenyan distance runners, then, came to these games with a great weight on their shoulders: because their country holds distance runners in such esteem, the team hoped that by bringing home a gold in the marathon--a feat which, bizarrely, the Kenyans have never been able to achieve despite their tremendous running prowess--they could help to alleviate the conflict in their nation and unite the two warring tribes. Think about that for a minute.

So, on the one hand, you have the US distance runners, who run to pick up a bigger running shoe contract; to have themselves featured in a New York Times article, perhaps; to garner the respect of some small fraction of the general public who gives a shit; to achieve a modicum of local fame, and in the process maybe have fewer beer bottles thrown out the windows of trucks at them during their training runs; heck, maybe even to have the other runners give them a second look when they take the starting line at international competitions. Then, on the other hand, you have the Kenyans, who just run to end civil war and save the lives of thousands or even millions of their countrymen.

Suddenly, this country's inferiority on the international distance running scene makes perhaps a bit more sense. Congratulations to Sammy Wanjiru for bringing the first Olympic marathon gold to Kenya--may it provide the profound national impact you and your teammates have dreamed of.