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?
The comment smacked of the remarks people made about sprinters
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,
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
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,
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.