I flew from Victoria to Seattle yesterday afternoon, and with plenty of time before my flight to Eugene, I took a stroll up and down the terminal. Airports are airports, but sometimes you see something fun. I already had a bag full of books, so I didn’t need to go to the bookstore (must resist the book store!). As I wandered, I saw a petite black man wearing a Nike jacket, with his (Nike-shod) feet up on his suitcase. The face looked familiar. Could it be? I was too shy to ask, so I kept walking. I figured, if it was the world-record holder in the 5000m and 10000m, and triple Olympic gold medalist, then he was probably going to the same place I was, and he’d swing by my gate eventually.
Sure enough, a little later, I see the same guy pulling his suitcase along near Gate C2B. I approach him.
“Hi, excuse me, are you…Bekele?” He seems unsure. Probably not of his answer, or his identity, but of whether he ought to talk to this skinny guy in a straw hat and red Adidas jacket (wrong team!).
“Yes.” Then, for reasons unknown to me, I ask him if he is Ken or Tariku. I actually say Ken. The reason I thought I should ask is because he looks so…small. I can’t imagine someone so big in significance could be so small in stature. This is despite having seen him race live in Oslo last year. Still, it’s sort of like Optimus Prime and Hot Rod. I just imagine Tariku to be the smaller version, and well, this guy is pretty small. Anyway, he says: “Yes, I am Ken.” He actually says Ken.
I think that should have pretty much ended our conversation, but I pressed on. I introduced myself and said I was impressed with his work. Or something dreadful like that. He just kind of nodded, as if to say, of course you are.
“So, what are you racing this weekend?” I know full well he is racing the 10000m. But I’ve learned from the expert track fan-boy, Jim McDannald, that you don’t want to give away too much.
“How’s your season going so far?”
So then we stand awkwardly for a while. He can’t go anywhere, he’s at his gate. I try to think of questions that might yield more than one-word answers.
“So, where do you train?” He looks at me funny.
“Ethiopia.” We could make a great comedy duo, I think.
“Oh yeah? Anywhere else? Like training camps?” Again, the look.
“It’s very close to my home.” He’s a conversation killer, this guy. Then he looks at the gate sign and says “It’s in 20 minutes” and turns to go. Ouch.
He wandered off, still looking a little lost, but now at least with a clear mission of avoiding the chatty Canadian in the hat. As I was texting my excitement to a few people (Davison: “Get a photo!” Miriam: “Who’s that?” Ryan: “Wow” Kris: “Yeah.” I’m paraphrasing.), he wandered back, asked a little old lady if the seat next to her was taken, and sat down again, still looking nervous. Not sure if it was me or if he was thinking about facing Merga in the 10000m Friday night. Is there anyone else he needs to be nervous about?
We weren’t near each other on the flight, and when we got to town, I had a rental car, and he had a shuttle bus, so that was the end of it. I guess after finishing off “Pre!” by Tom Jordan, and having read about what a gregarious soul Steve Prefontaine was, I expected all famous runners to be like that. But he apparently does not speak much English, and heck, if a stranger came up to me in an airport and knew my name, I might be wary, too. I can’t decide if a world record holder should expect to be recognised, or, given the state of track and field in towns not named Eugene, whether you’d expect the world record holder to be able to enjoy some anonymity in a place like the Seattle airport.
I guess I could ask him when I see him again at the press conference on Friday.