Tuesday, May 29, 2007

"It was like lining up with the fourth line of the Washington Capitals," I later said. George Misoi, Isaac Arusei and Philip Koech aren't the biggest names in distance running, but then, neither are Brian Sutherby and Brooks Liach. I bumped into these and a few others at the start line of the MDS Nordion 10k in Ottawa on Saturday night, one of the most competitive road races in Canada. I'd never seen a bona-fide 27-minute 10k runner in the flesh before. Then again, for those scoring at home, Arusei and Koech ran 27:48 and 27:50 respectively on Yonge Street's downhill course earlier this month.

I was struck by how human they were. I expected at least some superhuman features, but they seemed to be just as thin as I was, a bit darker and a bit better-dressed. There were, of course, dozens of other world-class and national-class runners at the race. Canada's own Simon Bairu won the race in 28:29, and scores of runners outscored me who finished 117th in 38:53.

I'm mixed on whether Bairu's victory or his subsequent geography lesson was more important. Bairu is, to speak plainly, is a black guy from Saskatchewan whose mother is Ethiopian and father is Eritrean. He identifies strongly with his Eritrean heritage and celebrated, I'm told, with both the Canadian and Eritrean flags. The Eritrean flag may as well have been the flag of the Northwest Territories to the thousands of spectators and runners present.

Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in the early 90s after a war that lasted decades. With a population of 4 million and a GDP of $4 billion, it's safe to say that Eritrea isn't better than Canada at many things. The only things that come to mind are wars of independence (Eritrea 1-0, Canada 0-0) and distance-running. It may be dubious to some whether a Canadian athlete who stands a strong chance of competing at the next two Olympic Games should be flying the flag of another country. Still, if someone found out on Saturday that there's a country out there called Eritrea, Bairu should fly its flag more often.

No comments: