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In the final seconds of the five-mile New York Road Runners Team Championships in Central Park this August, a 33-year-old Kenyan named Evance Rotich made one last kick and nipped an Ethiopian named Girma Tola at the wire.
Winning with a time of 23:29, Rotich had run a scorching 4:42 per mile—a pace that would not only kill most people, but also turned out to be the second-fastest time in the history of the event. Tola finished just two seconds back, but his coach said later that Tola was actually "taking it easy."
Other runners from Africa, many of them Tola's teammates who run for the Westchester Track Club, took most of the other top places. In fact, the only non-African in the first 11 places was John Henwood, a man who has raced for his native New Zealand in the Olympic Games. He finished ninth.
It may have been only a club meet in Central Park, but your garden-variety Manhattan health nut who runs on the weekends wasn't getting anywhere near any of the medals. And as Rotich quietly pulled on a dark sweatsuit to leave the park, a controversy was brewing.
Word began spreading that Rotich was not technically a member of the club for which he had raced—the West Side Runners (WSX). In fact, he had never raced in New York City before.
Once that information was confirmed, race organizers with the New York Road Runners Club ruled that WSX had to surrender its team points, though Rotich was allowed to keep his title.
Rotich, it turned out, was a classic "ringer." And in the days afterward, in the online forums populated by the hypercompetitive types who tend to fill up running-club rosters, Rotich, WSX, and the Westchester Track Club were roasted.
"Westchester Track Club destroys any other track club in and around NYC. Is it really coaching, or is it just recruiting? Ninety-five percent of the top runners on that club are non-Americans from Africa who were already better than most local runners when they joined," griped one participant, and others joined in with their own complaints about local track clubs being so determined to win that they felt it necessary to bring in Africans to beat local New Yorkers.
"Nice to see WSX bringing in their own contingent of Ethiopians. . . . Is there some kind of agent for these guys who brokers these deals?" asked another.
In fact, there are brokers of a sort who send Ethiopians and Kenyans to small-time events in New York and other American cities, at the request of clubs looking to score a few extra points and get the modest purses handed out to winners.
Rotich's American coach, Jhonny Camacho, admits that, in fact, he, Rotich, and WSX were well aware that Rotich was not technically eligible for the points, but they decided to race him anyway. (WSX, in an online statement, took a sarcastic swipe at the New York Road Runners Team for being uptight about the rules.)
There's little point in grousing, he says. Kenyans and Eritreans and Ethiopians are no longer coming over only for the big, prestigious races in New York and Boston. They come to stay for years at a time—some permanently—and they don't just want to break the tape at the races covered by media. They want to come and take your club medal away, too, weekend warrior.
"People complain a lot," Camacho says. "They say it's unfair and, also, there's a lot of jealousy, I think. But this is America. It's a melting pot. We have to just accept it. It's not just Africans. You have Russians, South Americans, Mexicans, and people from other countries."
Global barnstormers, this band of skilled African athletes, some based in New York, travel from one small meet to another, following prize money in the hope of sending some cash home and making enough to preserve a frugal, almost monastic lifestyle that is about running and running alone.
It is their own version of the global economy—the use of their feet and legs and lungs to move relatively small amounts of money from the pockets of race sponsors in cities and towns around the U.S. home to Africa.
Despite their success—and they win races all the time—they get little respect and almost no ink, and are hardly known at all outside the running fraternity. Even in the races they win, it is likely that the people they defeat have no idea where they came from or how they got here.
The 2008 New York City Marathon was approaching a decisive point along First Avenue as a pack of four runners hung together at the front. Slightly behind them, another, quieter drama was taking place.
Abiyot Endale stood expectantly on First Avenue near 90th Street at the 18-mile mark. Holding a water bottle in his hand, he scanned the wide boulevard, looking for a fellow Ethiopian runner named Mohammed Awol.
Like Endale, Awol is an elite distance runner. In October, just three weeks earlier, he had run a 2:18 marathon in Baltimore and finished sixth. But the organizers of the New York City race had refused to allow him to put his water bottles at the special tables set aside for the top runners, because all the slots had been handed out.