Pushing 50 and Going for Gold

Haile Satayin is the first to admit it: His job hurts. The constant battering of knees and compressing of joints during 26 grueling miles is torturous. It's much worse when you're pushing 50, he jokes.

He and his entourage of two had trotted up a sandy path in the only park in this working-class town in central Israel. Their morning training session was over and we talked under a canopy of eucalyptus. Satayin and his cohorts stretched and I talked.

At 47, the marathoner is the oldest runner to qualify for the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer by a good six years or so. I thought he might win the dubious title of oldest athlete at the games, until a friend told me of a 64-year-old Japanese equestrian.


But Satayin, who was born in Ethiopia and emigrated to Israel in 1991, is reluctant to talk about his age.

"No one's going to give me a head start in the race because of my age," he said, in a voice tinged with bitterness, "so what's the use in making a big deal out of it. I runs as fast as I can, every time, that's it."

In recent weeks, international attention has focused on marathoners after the announcement by Haile Gebresailase that he will not run in Beijing fearing that the city's pollution might permanently damage his lungs.

But Satayin says that not smog or age or heat will stop him from going.

I asked him what motivates a man to run professionally at his age, expecting boilerplate homage to God, country or competitive drive.

And Satayin indeed pays homage to those stock athletic motivations.

But scratch a little deeper and Satayin admits that it's a job, the only job he's ever had in Israel.

As the father of seven children, living in drug-infested projects pestered by the persistent rattling of the city's trains, he's been hoping to parlay his fame into a little fortune and a way out of the projects.

Yehiam Skittel, his former coach, drove us out to the runner's home in the projects beside the town's railroad tracks.

Satayin walked us in past the graffiti and the dented panel of mailboxes. We sidestepped an addict and crammed ourselves into an unlit elevator.

Insides his home, trophies and medals spill off a sagging shelf in a back room of his three-bedroom apartment. They attest to his trainers' claim that Satayin is Israel's greatest long-distance runner of all time.

It's quite a claim since Satayin only began running at the age of 30.

"Oh, I used to run to school and stuff," said Satayin, "but that's all. Back in Ethiopia I was a carpenter."

But his greatest moment came when he finished a respectable 19th, at the age of 43, at the Athens Olympics, and in the confusion ended up running an extra lap in the steamy Panathenaic Stadium to the delight of Israeli announcers.

Since then Satayin has fallen again into the shadows, training diligently and qualifying for the 2008 games, and eking out a living partly through stipends from the Israeli Olympic commission, and partly through prize money from races.

Yehiam Skittel, his former trainer and patron, says that "as a former runner I try to help where I can, but life is not easy for Haile."

Skittel says that Satayin hurts his chances of Olympic glory by running races for prize money, especially given his age and rebellious body.

"Most of those races take place on pavement or asphalt and over time, that kills the body. No other world-class runners have to do that."

But most runners don't have to support a family of seven. Still, he's better off than many other Ethiopian Jews living in Israel.

Satayin was airlifted here in a covert Israeli operation to rescue Ethiopian Jews from the turmoil and violence of war- and famine-stricken Ethiopia in 1990. It was called Operation Solomon, and in the span of 36 hours Israeli officials stuffed 747s and C-130 cargo planes with 14,500 of their slight-boned co-religionists.

Israel even notched a dubious record for single-flight passenger load: It crammed more than 1,100 people on a single 747.

That helter-skelter flight from Ethiopia is one of the reasons for the mix-up over Satayin's age.

When he landed in Israel, and the Israeli immigration authorities began processing the thousands of Jewish refugees they asked his date of birth. He answered truthfully: 1954. Yet he had neglected to mention that the date was calculated according to the Ethiopian calendar, which is seven years behind the Gregorian calendar.

His Israeli identification and passport still list him as being in his mid-50s.

Today the Ethiopian community here is mired in poverty, soaring drug use and the highest high-school drop-out rate of any group in Israel.

In Satayin's home, Skittel says Israel missed out on a great opportunity by not tapping into the Ethiopian community's God-given talent for long-distance running.

Satayin's dream is to quit running and start a federation of Israeli-Ethiopian runners, to get kids off the streets and onto the track.

First, though, he plans to keep training, to beat at least some of his young rivals at the Beijing Olympics.