Inconvenient truths

Marathon runner Haile Satayin isn't in running for the glory, but merely to feed his eight children.

Haile Satayin 88 224 (photo credit: Jeremy Last)
Haile Satayin 88 224
(photo credit: Jeremy Last)
Dusk had turned to darkness at the Arch of Constantine by the time Abebe Bikila wended his way back to the starting and finishing point of the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome, running through history as he was making some of his own. Merely a guard in Haile Selassie's palace, just a last-second addition to the team, Bikila was suddenly the first black African Olympic medalist. An anonymous black athlete running barefoot through the streets and roughshod over his opponents, Bikila became the enduring symbol of the games, galvanizing generations of Ethiopians, some yet unborn, to dominate middle- and long-distance running. Haile Gebrselassie, a child of the spring of 1973, would get goose bumps watching Bikila triumphant in Rome. Today, Gebrselassie is widely considered one of the greatest of all time, and he isn't done yet. But at 35 he professes to have a new role model - Israel's Olympic marathoner, Haile Satayin, 53. Fifty three?! Not in Ethiopia, where he was born 46 years ago this past April. He grew up in Gondar, one of nine, working as a carpenter after finishing school. Leaving most of his family behind, he came to Israel during the 1991 Operation Solomon with two children in tow. At first they were put up in a hostel in Tiberias, next in a caravan on the outskirts of Acre. Finally, they moved into a cramped apartment abutting the train tracks in a run-down part of Hadera. For a while, he worked as an accountant, which is ironic, because counting is the most obvious area in which Israel and Satayin are at odds. His ID maintains that Satayin was born in 1955, which is true - according to the Ethiopian calendar, which began counting about eight years before the Gregorian. Satayin tried to make his case to the clerks, but he was discounted. Today, the calendar in his home hangs askew, perhaps undecided. Soon, it was kilograms that Satayin was counting, 12 to be exact, his weight ballooning as he struggled to adapt to Israeli food. So he began to run, acting on the advice of a friend. He hadn't run in Ethiopia, where it was considered inappropriate among Jews, but as he returned to his familiarly frail form, he took a liking to the sport. A different friend advised him that running was not only a way to lose weight, but perhaps to make money, too. Having nothing to lose, he very quickly began to win, and by 1994 he was the Israeli champion at 10,000 meters. But while medals were piling up, money wasn't. As the sole provider of a family that now numbers 10, Satayin turned to the head of the Israeli Athletic Association, who promised to help on the condition that he begin to compete in the marathon. He made the transition from middle- to long-distance running, like his friend Gebrselassie, with stunning ease. He soon broke the Israeli record for the marathon, setting it at two hours, 14 minutes and 21 seconds. He qualified for the Athens Olympics, where despite severe pain in his stomach he finished a surprising 20th. Or was that 29th? A careless judge erred in counting, temporarily dropping Satayin to 29th and forcing him to run an extra lap. "They say there is honor in the Olympics," he says, but to him it is just another race, no different from the rest, and that is what he remembers best from Athens. A soft, subtly sardonic smile creases Satayin's worn face as he recounts the time that he went the extra mile, almost literally. He doesn't often smile when speaking of the marathon. "After a race, after a difficult practice, I go home in suffering. That's why I hate the marathon." Does everyone hate it? "Everyone suffers, but not everyone hates it." Why, then, does he persist? "I have no choice. What can I do? It's a job, it's work." Is it also fun? "No, it's just work." A train hurtles by as he explains, "Running for three hours isn't easy." His grin becomes a grimace, "That's why I hate it. It's not good for the body, I keep getting injured." When the topic of the 2012 Olympics is broached, he begins to answer, then stops. Suddenly his voice trails off, "It's too bad, I don't know why I began to run. I saw the world, I did everything... but I lost badly, in terms of standard of living. It's not easy, you know, running the marathon. I gave it my all, my body is breaking down, don't ask about the fatigue." Like Bikila in Rome, Satayin's running has brought him right back to where he had begun. "I haven't made any money running. I could have made much more money, I could have studied." But he isn't giving up. His voice is infused with determination as he vows, "Next year I'll start studying. I think of my children. I'm not that old, I can still study." What will he study? "Whatever's good for my future," he pauses, and then adds with biting sarcasm, "in short - economics." For Satayin, it's been a long run, but even as the Olympics draw near he knows that it's far from over, that it won't end even as his marathon puts the finishing touch on the Games. At the end of the race, he knows, there is no rainbow - only bills to pay and children to raise and studies to begin and no one, really, to count on. "I'm sick of it all," he admits, and he harbors no illusions of what the future holds. In 1960 Bikila returned home a conquering hero. Emperor Haile Selassie promptly promoted him to corporal and awarded him the Star of Ethiopia. When he won again in 1964, the first repeat winner in the marathon, the emperor lavished him with a Volkswagen Beetle as a reward for his patriotism. When Bikila was asked after his historic run why he ran barefoot, he declared, "I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism." Satayin, who got rid of his car and prefers to run, may not know what became of Bikila, but he knows well the truth about heroism, and he sees the emperor's new gifts for what they are. Because the bare truth about Bikila's run is rather more pedestrian: Bikila ran barefoot not as a statement, but only because he was stuck with an uncomfortable pair of shoes. And when a military coup took place shortly after Bikila's promotion, he was forced to pick sides; he unwittingly picked the wrong one, and was lucky to be the only one pardoned. The gift he received four years later, on the other hand, turned out to be a veritable death trap. The country was again suffering from instability, and Bikila lost control of his car during student demonstrations, sustaining injuries that crippled him. He strove to compete in the Paralympic games, but complications from the accident led to his death five years later, in the autumn of 1973.