Tuesday, January 30, 2007

National stride

By Adrian Walker, Globe Columnist January 29, 2007

Mesele Kifle is a big figure in Boston's Ethiopian community, and especially on its sports scene.

So there was only one place for him to spend this past Saturday night -- the Reggie Lewis Track in Roxbury at the Reebok Boston Indoor Games.

To track and field insiders, the meet, which boasted highly ranked runners from around the world, is a major stop on the indoor track circuit. It was broadcast on ESPN, the ultimate sports-world validation.

It means something different, though, to a man like Kifle, the president of the Boston Ethiopian Sports Club. Kifle, 55, came to Boston decades ago to attend college and, to his surprise, never left. For him and his associates, the meet is a huge occasion of community pride and a source of a sometimes-elusive unity.

"People are divided, with different ideas about politics and religion, but sports gives us national unity," Kifle said. "When we see the runners, we have a special feeling."

The Reggie was awash in emotion during the meet. Ethiopian flags were out in abundance, as were the national colors. Those who had come out to cheer their country's finest runners had plenty to cheer about, starting with the performance of Tirunesh Diruba .

The world record holder in the women's 5,000 meters, she brought the crowd to its feet by leaving her so-called competitors in her distant wake. Among those finishing far, far behind her was her sister, Ejegayehu . The Ethiopians would get their next chance to cheer when Meseret Defar easily took first place in the women's 3,000 meters -- to the delight of a huge cheering section at the finish line.

Diruba later said she enjoys running in Boston, mainly because of the fans. "It's like running in Ethiopia," she said through a translator. "People here have lots of love for me, and I can feel that."

The love affair between the local Ethiopian community and the nation's runners dates back for years. When Fatuma Roba won three consecutive Boston Marathons in the late 1990s, it was common for her fans to jump on the course and run alongside her for moral support. They didn't keep up for long, but a tradition was born.

Kifle, not surprisingly, was usually among those who would try to run a piece of the marathon alongside Roba. "When it comes to these kinds of things, I get very emotional."

He and others said that emotion comes from the connection that it gives to home. Next to soccer, track is the country's great athletic pastime. The dominance of the country's runners gives a relatively low-profile community here something to stand up and cheer. Tickets to the Reebok Games get snatched up early, with sales spurred by word-of-mouth in convenience stores and restaurants.

Kifle didn't know he would become an American when he moved to the United States. He attended Bunker Hill Community College and Boston State College. He thought he would spend perhaps five years in the States before returning home. But while he was away, the emperor, Haile Selassie, was deposed in a military coup, changing Ethiopia utterly. He has been back to visit only a few times since, most recently just a few weeks ago. Kifle said he saw a country that was little like he remembered it.

"Everything -- the poverty is different, the unemployment is different. There is a lot of poverty," he said. "But the people are the same. Eventually, I'm going to end up there."
Kifle Alemu, 30, became a high school track star at Boston English High after moving here from Ethiopia. He and a friend were videotaping the meet at trackside. "This is special for Ethiopian people," Alemu said.

Mesele Kifle said he would probably be traveling to other meets in Washington and New York in the next couple of weeks. He is not alone among Ethiopians who like to travel the track-and-field circuit. He lives for this. "I like to see us win," he said.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.


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