Wednesday November 4th, 2009

As Meb Keflezighi raced his final meters of the New York City Marathon on Sunday, he pointed to the USA singlet he chose to wear for the race. He did not point to a company logo; he pointed to the place he calls home. After breaking the tape, he crossed himself and sprawled on the pavement to kiss the ground that propelled him. This was a celebration-in-waiting. The gentleman runner had become the first U.S. athlete to win the country's most celebrated distance race since 1982.

However, over the next few days, people started whispering about Keflezighi's claim to his country. Keflezighi was born in Eritrea and how were people supposed to identify with or believe in his patriotic gesture? Darren Rovell penned an article on entitled "Marathon"s Headline Win Is Empty." In the story, Rovell wrote, "Unfortunately, it's not as good as it sounds ... the fact that he's not American-born takes away from the magnitude of the achievement the headline implies ... Nothing against Keflezighi, but he's like a ringer you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league."

The comment smacked of the remarks people made about sprinters Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe being "auxiliaries" simply because they were black. These are increasing divisive times. It is fashionable in some circles to be insular and exclusionary in the name of being patriotic. Somehow people in our nation of immigrants buy into it, whether driven by fear, ignorance or latent racism.

To his credit, Rovell later wrote what we'll call a clarification in which he apologized for not understanding Keflezighi's history. He was not alone. On Monday, The New York Times ran an article that did not advocate a position and was entitled, "To Some, Winner Is Not American Enough." It referenced unnamed remarks, including one from that read, "Give us a break. It's just another African marathon winner."

I'm going to give Rovell the benefit of the doubt that his piece had no racist intentions. He explained that he meant to question the legitimacy of athletes who made themselves into geopolitical free agents, those reared by another sports system in another country earning honors for the U.S., sort of like the trove of Kenyans who run for Bahrain because the oil-rich country paid them to swap citizenship. He did not understand at the time that Keflezighi did not fall into that category.

The phrase "American dream" may be kicked around with casual carelessness, but in fact, from his family's journey to the States to his academic, professional and athletic successes, Keflezighi's story is profoundly American. It should be enough to say that Mebrahtom Keflezighi came to the States as a 12-year old and ran his first formal race as a San Diego schoolboy, but his entire tale merits revisiting.

Keflezighi had never seen a car until one pulled up next to him when he was 10 in his village of Adi Beyani and he tried to race it. During the county's 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia, soldiers would search for boys aged 12 and older to conscript into the military. Those who refused or tried to run were shot.

The Keflezighis had an elaborate escape route through a backdoor for Fitsum and Aklilu, Meb's older brothers, once they reached the age of conscription. The Keflezighis were among the few families in the village whose house had a metal roof. They still lacked electricity and would tell time by sticking a rock in the sand and waiting for the shadow it cast to pass a certain point.

Russom, the family patriarch, was an open supporter of liberation forces, and therefore a target of militia. Police constantly threatened him as he tried to manage his grocery store in Asmara, the capital city. In 1981, he fled to Sudan by walking 600 miles in the dead of night. He slept during the days, drained swamp water through his clothes in order to drink, and carried only a flashlight he could shine in the faces of hyenas who might want to eat him.

It took the Keflezighis five years until they saw their father, who eventually brought the family to San Diego to live with his half-sister. The students there at Roosevelt Junior High teased Meb because of his old clothes and quiet demeanor. That is until he won a mile race in five minutes, 20 seconds. "That was the first time other kids showed me respect," he said.

Yes, the talent was there, but the formal running training hadn't yet begun. Even when Meb started progressing through the high school ranks, Russom stuck to his edict about education coming before sports, often waking his children at 4 a.m. to study an English book with them. "Education is something nobody can take away from you," Russom would tell his kids. They all listened. Consider the rundown of what the Keflezighis have done, without English as the family's first tongue.

Meb's oldest sibling, his half sister, Ruth Donahue, is a manager at Home Depot. His oldest brother, Fitsum, was taking English as a second language one year and earned the top academic award at Roosevelt Jr. High a year later. He earned an electrical engineering degree at UC Santa Barbarba and is now a project manager National Semiconductor in Silicon Valley. The next brother, Akiliu, was a double major at UCSB in economics and political science and has an MBA from the Monterrey Institute of International business. Meb graduated from high school with a 3.95 GPA and was a communication studies major at UCLA while winning several national titles in distance running for the Bruins. His coach, Bob Larson, recalls chastising Meb for yawning before a race at the Pac-10 Championships because he had been up all night writing papers. Meb won the race anyway.

Next sister, Bahghi, finished med school at UCLA and is now doing nonprofit work as a doctor for underprivileged communities. Merhawi, a younger brother, graduated UCLA with a law degree and serves as an agent for several runners, including Meb. Another brother, Bemnet, graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in business management and is now taking courses to be a CPA in San Diego. Adhanet graduated from Stanford this year with a degree in economics. Younger sister Fnann is the vice president of the black student union at UC San Diego, where she is a junior and resident adviser. Youngest sister Zaida is a freshman at Cal-Berkeley. Youngest brother, Admekom, is a high school sophomore.

Meb once remarked that he might be the least accomplished member of his family. He said it about an hour after he won the Olympic silver medal in the marathon at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. He speaks passionately, even in private, about his gratitude for the chance he and his family have been given to succeed here.

I once told him that a similarly grateful man whom I knew well surmised that those who had to work to earn the privilege of their citizenship appreciated it more than those who were born into it. I think my Argentinean-born father, who came over to join the U.S. Army during the Second World War, would have been proud to share Meb's colors.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.