Follow Will: Facebook Twitter

A Yankee Notebook

August 12, 2012


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – I just watched the second half of the men’s marathon in London, looked around the parlor to see who was cheering so loudly, and discovered I was. It was a beautifully run race – “the thinking man’s race,” a color commentator rightly termed it – that Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, in a stunning surprise, almost turned into a runaway.

As he approached the finish, assured of victory, Kiprotich grabbed a Ugandan flag that someone in the crowd held out to him, draped it over his shoulders, and ran triumphantly into the broad tape at the finish line. Then he knelt quickly on the pavement with the flag before him on the ground, bowed low, crossed himself, and gazed quickly and happily heavenward.

Right away the thoughts began. “Oh!” I thought. “He must be Catholic.” Anglican would have fit just as well; some of us cross ourselves on occasion, too. But the point was that, though he’s thoroughly African, he bears the first name of a Christian saint. The second- and third-place finishers from Kenya, Abel Kirui and Wilson Kipsang, also bear Western first names, a reflection of not-so-long-ago European colonialism. It reminded me of our friends in far northern Canada, with names like Joseph Ohokannoak and Mark Ayalik. Our missionaries have, for better or worse, been busy beavers in foreign lands.

Next, I couldn’t help but think of our old cross-country coach at Mount Hermon School in the 1950s, Fred “Freddy, the Fox” McVeigh. Taciturn and imperturbable – he’d been on an ammunition ship in the South Pacific during the War – Mr. McVeigh uttered so few opinions and directives that we forgot almost none, if any, of those he did offer. “If you pass a man on an uphill,” he once advised, “it’s quite unlikely that he’ll pass you back.” The message was that it was indeed a thinking man’s game. But it was also a running man’s game: At the top of the hill, you took off as fast as you dared to fix the notion of your superiority in the passee’s mind.

He also mentioned that when a distance-runner’s hands began to come up to his chest, and his chin to rise, as well, he was tiring, either physically or mentally, and was about to either fade, or to dig down deeper and leave you in the dust. Today’s marathon illustrated the wisdom of both pieces of advice. Kipsang, the Kenyan favorite, led out strongly and opened a good lead. Both Kirui and Kiprotich steadily reeled him in, till they were running in a tight bunch. Then I saw Kiprotich’s hands and chin begin to rise. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “He’s about had it.”

Then came an uphill with a left-hand corner in the rise. Kiprotich came from nowhere, rounded the corner first, and took off (another old cross-country trick). The Kenyans had good reason to think he couldn’t sustain the burst of speed. But they were wrong.

It was impossible, watching the Ugandan and Kenyan flags fluttering at the finish, not to think of Arthur F.H. Newton (1883-1959), an English expatriate to the British South African colonies, who, after struggling as a farmer, became famous as a long-distance runner, the first of the ultramarathoners. How I wished I could have had the old colonialist sitting beside me this morning, to read to him from Page 50 of his book [it] Races and Training. [it] “ athletics, the white man has always beaten the coloured whose brains are not so advanced, except when he has taken his coloured rival in hand and trained him as he trains other whites.” Blacks are better at sprinting, he allowed, “...for they’re much less removed from atavism and savagery, and consequently have less ground to make up.” The irony would have been delicious. Remembering how the British and other European nations colonized Africa for its resources during the 19th century, you can see clearly who the real savages were. In any case, the Africans took it back this morning, and have been taking it back for years. The only American left standing this morning, Meb Keflezighi, took a very creditable fourth place; but as you might guess from his name, Meb is not from Chicago. He immigrated to the United States from Eritrea with his family when he was twelve.

The last American winner of the Olympic marathon, in 1972, was Frank Shorter, for whom I have a special place in my heart. We both went to Mount Hermon and ran on the same cross-country team – though Frank was 12 years later and light-years faster than I. He was probably the last marathon winner that the United States will have in the modern Olympics.

But there’s been much more than nationalism going on in London these past weeks. The Olympics give us a chance to see young athletes from all over the world and realize how much has changed since the Games were revived in 1896. The biggest change has been in the participation of women, who were originally restricted to lawn tennis and croquet, lest (informed medical opinion warned) they damage the organs given them for child-bearing. I may loathe the vestigial events of synchronized swimming and rhythmic exercise, but can’t help cheering (out loud again) when I see the United States women compete, even better than our men, against international competition in sprints, hurdles, and distance events, including marathon; crew and canoeing; boxing; gymnastics; and weightlifting. Those who deplore “government programs” for ideological reasons need to take a look at the results of Title IX, an amendment to the Civil Rights act written and advocated by Patsy Mink, the Congresswoman from Hawaii. It dealt with gender equality and said nothing about sports; but it has had everything to do with the results of, for example, the women’s high jump, the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays, the 200-meter sprint, basketball, beach volleyball, and crew. The ladies are doing just fine, and you can hardly tell they’ve injured themselves for life. What a long and beautiful way we’ve come since Bob Mathias and Fanny Blankers-Koen!

Photo by Willem lange