Yesterday I mentioned the results of the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championship, which on the boys’ side was won by Soloman Haile of Silver Spring, Maryland by way of Ethiopia. Haile made it look easy in pulling away in the final mile of the 3.1-mile race to win by a solid seven seconds, and in fact claimed that it was easy.
But there’s a problem with Haile’s win: It’s possible–seemingly very likely in fact–that Haile didn’t belong in the race and has no business taking part high-school sports. Credible speculation as to Haile’s background and age exists, and some pretty damning evidence points toward him competing under the name Solomon Semunguse as a 20-year-old throughout much of 2007, winning prize money at numerous road races (a no-no for prep athletes no matter how old), and then enrolling at Sherwood High School under his current name in the fall of 2007.
Discussion of Haile’s age is not a new subject, but has naturally picked up momentum with his winning a national championship. While Internet rumors are generally worth less than the HTML files they’re written into, the whole saga is intriguing and can be followed by patient souls here.
As is always the case on the calamitous Letsrun.com message board, this long string is a chimera of seemingly substantive input, querulous nonsense (“Who cares how old he is, our kids need to step up and learn to run against the best!!!”), humor (“I heard he celebrated his Foot Locker win by drinking a beer. Legally.”), and weirdness (discussion of the Coptic calendar and its possible role in the controversy; demands for DNA testing). What people are demanding most is to see Haile’s passport, not that this would necessarily be conclusive.
If I had to bet one way or the other, I would put my money on this “kid” being at least 20. There is a long, deep precedent for this sort of thing among African immigrant distance runners. A few years ago, a Sudanese kid named Guor Majak enrolled as a sophomore at my alma mater, Concord High School in New Hampshire. In the ensuing years he tore apart a couple of school records (but not Christopher Basha’s then-state record in the 1600 meters, set in 1988 when I was Basha’s teammate), but by the time he was a senior he was too old to compete at Foot Locker even though the NHIAA had let him run cross country for CHS that fall. He was ineligible for spring track months later. But the difference between Majak and Haile is that everyone knew Guor was old for his grade.
Kenyans have been sending superannuated atheletes to the World Junior Cross Country Championships for years, and they usually get away with it because of the difficulty in establishing true age. But when someone shows up as a 19-year old one year and then starts competing in top-tier marathons as a 24-year-old two years later, something’s screwed up. And the incentive to cheat is significant; as one Letsrun.com wag sarcastically put it, “I overheard this conversation a few years ago: ‘Hey Mom, we’re going to leave the sh!thole called Ethiopia and go to America. Rip up my birth certificate and tell everyone I’m 4 years younger than I am. Then you won’t have to pay for my college, I’ll get a scholarship and buy you that farm and 12 cows when we come back to this sh!thole. We’ll have it made in the shade, bayyyyybeeee!'”
We’ll see what, if anything, comes of this. But it’s most likely far from a dead issue.