ONE EARLY CAUSE of tension in the Elite family has been its very success: The more they win, the more tempted they may be to jump to more powerful agents.
The strains were already showing one summer afternoon when Hussein and I headed up to the Elites' apartment for lunch. "What do you think?" Hussein asked as we mounted the stairs. "Are they happy? They seem pretty happy to you?"
A stomach-teasing aroma of stewed food was in the air, and the thrumming of African bass guitar wafted through the open window. Everyone was sprawled this afternoon on sofas and easy chairs, eating enormous platefuls of spaghetti and vegetables and watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. Action movies are popular in the household; so are ESPN and gospel music. The Christian faith is big throughout the Kenyan running community—Cosmas Ndeti won the Boston Marathon twice while wearing "Jesus Loves Me" socks, and Catherine Ndereba has two non-running diversions: professional ice hockey and her Bible.
As cozy as the scene appeared, Hussein had reason to be concerned about their happiness. He's only too aware that Elite was formed by crossovers from Lisa Buster's group—defection can be a two-way street. And if there's one factor that has the potential to trigger full-scale revolt, it's the number of years the Elites will have to wait before making serious cash in bigger events. Recently, the group had a great showing at the 7.6-mile Mount Washington Road Race, the longest uphill race in the country; teammates Alice Muriithi and Daniel Kihara won and came home with just $750 apiece, minus Elite's 15 percent commission. And when John Njeru won in Rye, he brought back all of $500.
Hussein told me about a nerve-racking confrontation in Portugal this past spring when Charles Kamathi, after his victories over Tergat, started hinting he might like a new agent. On the spot, Hussein offered to help him pack his bags. "If he was going to leave, I wanted him out before he started talking dissent," Hussein said. Charles stayed.
Nelson Ndereva was a different story. Like Charles, he started hinting at finding another agent. But he committed an unforgiveable act early this past summer, when he took two young runners out partying on the night before a race in Florida. The Elites—management and runners, including Sammy—held a vote, and it was unanimous: Nelson was expelled from the group. His visa was cancelled once again, and he was sent home. Sammy, when asked about his friend, shrugged and looked resigned to Nelson's harsh fate.
"Sure, it hurts to lose a 2:10 marathoner," said Hussein. "But there can't be any stars in The System."
Sammy was missing that afternoon when Hussein and I arrived for lunch. "He's at the pool," Jim said, setting off a ripple of chuckles in the living room. "Kenya will finally win a gold medal in swimming," Francis cracked, causing more laughter. Sammy, it turned out, had a stress fracture in his shin. Jim and Hussein drove him to New Jersey to see a top orthopedist, who ordered him off his feet and into the pool. Sammy argued with Hussein on the ride home, and finally admitted he couldn't swim. "You should see him now!" Jim laughed. "He's in there, thrashing away. He's starting to like it more than running."
Once Sammy is healthy, Hussein plans to start moving him up in distance, the goal being to bolster his natural speed with enough endurance to take a stab at one of the major marathons. More races are being established every year in America, a trend that began in the midnineties. "On any given day, you can never tell who will be the top contender in what race," Jim says, and begins ticking off events: "Twin Cities, the Country Music Marathon in Nashville...all of these are good money and good tests for Boston and New York."
There's a parable to keep in mind, Jim reminded me. Khalid Khannouchi came to the United States from Morocco in 1993 as a mediocre 3,000-meter man. He got a job as a dishwasher, began training at night, and this past fall pulled ahead of Moses Tanui in the last mile of the Chicago Marathon to set a new world record of 2:05:42. So why not Sammy?