Track and Field = Globally Aware
Of all sports fans in America, track and field fans are arguably the most globally informed. Think about it. If you were to give a test on matters of foreign affairs, which fan base do you think would score highest?
Soccer fans immediately strike as strong candidates for being globally on the ball. Yet, Major League Soccer remains largely ensconced within our American culture; and though American soccer fans might well watch Premier League English Football or Primera División de Mexico on satellite television, is the U.K. or Mexico really foreign in terms of world affairs? Hardly. Cycling pops to mind as an internationally savvy sport, but it is largely limited to athletes and fans from Western nations - not exactly global.
To be a track and field fan is to be, by definition, globally aware. You have no other choice. The runners at the top of the sport hail in preponderant numbers from Africa, who each year come to America and routinely win the New York, Boston and Chicago marathons. The most intriguing thing for me as a boy and a fan of track and field in the 1980s was the strange names connected to the runners who were native to obscure places such as Mozambique and Romania, competing in what seemed to me exotic locales such as Göteborg, Oslo and Zurich. I learned about Apartheid by way of South African Zola Budd who was born in the Orange Free State and made headlines for her world championships, world records and bare foot running, along with the controversy of running for the Apartheid suffering nation that in turn made her ineligible for the Olympics. She resolved this by immigrating to Great Britain.
In 1984 the Moroccan track star named Said Aouita became as familiar to my ten-year old mind as Magic Johnson. This was not because my elementary school specialized in teaching the current events of Morocco, nor was it because Moroccan culture is popularly known in the U.S. I knew of Aouita, and therefore Morocco, because I am a fan of track and field. Aouita dominated the middle-distance events from the 800m-5000m throughout the eighties, winning the 5,000m gold in the 1984 Olympics, the 800m bronze in ’88, and for several years held both the 5,000m and 1,500m world records. Aouita not only captured my young imagination but also the imagination of the young Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj, who shares my birth year of 1974. It is said that El Guerrouj was inspired to run by watching Said’s performance in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It makes me wonder: where did he watch the race? Did his family own a television with rabbit ears wrapped in aluminum foil, or was there a favorite café that hosted for soccer matches and track events?
El Guerrouj, dubbed the King of the Mile, is the current world record holder in the 1,500 meters (and the mile, 2000m and indoor 1500m/mile), wresting it away from Algerian Noureddine Morceli who dominated the event through the nineties, winning gold in the ’96 Olympics, the same race that El Guerrouj made his Olympic final debut, only to trip and fall at the gun lap. He would have to wait until 2004 for his first Olympic victory that came in a pair, becoming the first Olympian since Finland’s Paavo Nurmi won both the 1,500m and 5000m in the 1924 Olympic Games. Following his twin victory, El Guerrouj acknowledged the Flying Finn as one of the great legends who marked the history of athletics, “He left his name at his point in time. Now I’m able to put my name with his. He is from another time, a time when my grandfather was watching him. To stand alongside him now, how can I express it? There are no words.” The intimate respect of a fellow runner is tied together by the bonds of knowing the same distance raced and the pain and glory that goes with it.
Aouita, Morceli and El Guerrouj are all men of small stature, sinewy and light boned, built for running speedily and with endurance, each 5’8” or less, no more than 140 pounds. Three men descended from tribes of the Atlas Mountains on the fringe of the southern edge of the Mediterranean, home to the ancient Berbers and more recently Arab tribes that includes luminaries such as St. Augustine, born in present day Souk Ahras, Algeria; Tertullian, who coined the term Trinity in reference to Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Arius, who generated the famous theological battle with Athanasius that shaped Christianity; and Ramses the Great, a Pharaoh of Pharaohs. Anthropologically, these North African tribes are related closer to Sicilians, Egyptians and Spaniards, then Nigerians, Ethiopians and Saudi Arabians. These athletes wear on their singlet the red star and crescent of Islam (Algeria), and the interwoven pentangle star symbolic of occult law in ancient days and the five pillars of Islam today (Morocco). This is a people with a long and variegated history who have weathered centuries of hardscrabble living as farmers and herdsmen over rugged land that has developed a tenacity of mind and body. These intangibles of genetic lineage and adaptation cannot be prescribed by a coach standing on an all-weather track holding a stop-watch, but they do arguably help produce world champions in the sport of track and field.
My familiarity with these North African track athletes made possible an appreciation for Muslim people when the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran and despots like Libyan President Momar Khadafi were the types of Muslims popularly featured in the news. Because of track and field, I know Muslims to be amongst the greatest of athletes in a sport I cherish. I watched Abdi Bile of Somalia compete long before the Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in the Battle of Mogadishu. This is not to say that my appreciation for Somalia’s superb miler changed the impoverished and violent horrors of the country, but it changed me. It expanded my perception of who a Somalian could be outside the realm of guerilla warlords, terrorism, and politics.
When Hassiba Boulmerka, the Algerian middle-distance runner was forced to move to Europe to train because of the fundamentalists at home who deemed her running attire unacceptably immodest, I realized just how significant the Muslim culture war with the West is. Through exposure to the international competition of track and field, nuanced aspects of the Muslim culture were revealed to me long before the Taliban and Al-Qaeda became household names and popular signifiers of the Islamic faith. Despite opposition, Boulmerka went on to win gold in the 1,500m at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Most recently, Moroccan born Rashid Ramzi, competing for Bahrain at the Beijing Olympics, won gold in the 1500m, perpetuating the long-line of gold-medal middle-distance runners from the Maghreb nations of North Africa. In these days of protracted struggle with the Muslim world, we in the West would do well to familiarize ourselves with the story and lives of individuals who cannot be easily vilified as Evil Doers. Recognition and gratitude for athletes such as Rashid Ramzi gives a human face to the diversity of Muslim people who are relatively unknown and often misunderstood by Americans. When we can acknowledge people for something more than the politics, religion, economics, and leadership of the nation states in which they live, the people become human and therein of value. By virtue of being a fan of track and field, and a friend so to speak of the sport’s greatest runners, my global awareness of troubled and little known nations is enhanced, leaving me more astute in matters of foreign affairs and sensitive to world events. In the words of the Glasgow based indie-pop band Belle and Sebastian, “the stars of track and field are beautiful people.” Indeed. How has your sport influenced you lately – on a global scale?