A feature article by Dyestat.com entitled "Shadow on a Rising Star" caused a firestorm of controversy last week. The article by Dyestat senior editor, Dave Devine, presented the controversial evidence of Solomon Haile's age and amateur status that had long been murmured about on internet message boards since his arrival on the high school running scene in February of 2008. Devine had directly contacted Montgomery County Athletic Director Duke Beattie who re-confirmed that Haile had proper documentation that showed he was of legal age to compete in high school. Beattie, however, was unaware of the cash prizes that Haile was accused of winning and accepting. This sparked an investigation into his eligibility based on the use of his athletic ability for financial gain.
The article for the most part presented the facts, using information provided by Beattie, MPSSAA Executive Director Ned Sparks, and other information presented in previous articles written about Haile. He even contacted the race director for the Hartford Half Marathon who confirmed that Haile received a check for $350 for his second place finish.
For most readers, this $350 purse was the convincing nail in the coffin that would steal away Haile's eligibility to compete for his high school. For Beattie, it was enough to investigate the situation. On Wednesday, October 22, one day after the article ran on Dyestat, Reeks was called in for a meeting with Beattie and Sherwood High School athletic director James Meehan to discuss the issue. A hearing was set for Friday, October 24 to review the evidence and make a decision on his eligibility based on prize money Haile had won.
The fundamental flaw with the article, however, was that it did not dig deep enough to uncover the whole truth. Solomon Haile was not contacted for comment prior to its publication. Reeks was contacted, but was not able to respond in time to the message on his answering machine before the article appeared on the front page of Dyestat for thousands of running fans to read.
After the article was published without comment from Reeks or Haile and the hearing date was set, Naomi Haile, who initially watched after Solomon when he first came to the United States, was contacted and made the trip from Fishersville, Virginia, where she lives with her husband, to Silver Spring, where Solomon lives with his sister Eden. Naomi was set on vehemently defending her younger brother with the evidence that no one had considered: she had in her possession the actual checks that Solomon had accepted for his performance in road races. One check had been mailed to Solomon, while two others he had accepted on stage just to be polite. He never intended to cash any of the checks. Naomi was adamant about never letting Solomon cash checks or even use gift certificates that he won from races because she knew it would end his amateur status.
The check from the Hartford Half Marathon and two other checks, which are all expired at this point, were presented to Dr. Duke Beattie at the hearing on Friday, October 24. Beattie ruled that Solomon had not violated his amateur status, and as a result, Solomon is fully clear to participate in this week's 4A West regional championship, the 4A State Championship, and the Footlocker Northeast Regional Championship on November 29.
With all of the rumors and mounting evidence surrounding Solomon Haile for months on internet message boards, it is understandable that more and more people become upset and demand explanations. So perhaps the biggest question of all is why no one spoke out with those explanations.
Dan Reeks has been teaching social studies and coaching cross country and track & field in Montgomery County for 38 years. One could discuss all of the state champions that he has coached and all of the coach of the year honors he has earned in that time period. But perhaps the most important thing to know about Dan Reeks for this story is that he does not read internet message boards. This isn't to say that he was completely oblivious to the rumors and accusations, but he certainly did not put much stock in them and was not going to respond to them.
Solomon, on the other hand, had read some of the hurtful things that people were saying about him. When he asked Reeks if he should defend himself, Reeks told him he did not need to defend himself to anonymous kids on message boards. After all, he had already proved his age to the people who mattered: the Montgomery County Public School system.
So such was Reeks' philosophy as Solomon went on to win two 5k Nike national titles in the winter and spring. Message boards quieted down over the summer before all of the same controversies were reignited when cross country season began. The screams became loud enough that Dyestat's Dave Devine investigated and sparked an investigation by the school system.
To fully understand Solomon Haile and how it came to this, one has to go back several years to a moment when he decided to give up soccer to be a distance runner. To Solomon, distance running was not just a passing interest, but an instant passion. He took up the sport with total conviction. Whenever he wrote to his sister Naomi, running is all he ever wanted to tell her about. At first, his family did not take Solomon's running too seriously, but eventually Naomi realized just how passionate he was about it and wanted to help him.
While Solomon was developing his endurance in Ethiopia, Naomi, already in the United States for 13 years, college educated, and married, began researching ways to help her brother to train better and dream big. She decided that she would encourage Solomon's running by having him experience big time international racing. She began looking for races where she had family or friends that could host him. That way it would be less expensive and there would be someone there to watch over him, help him with transportation to and from the airport, help him get to the race, and show him whatever else there was to see in the city.
The first such race that Naomi chose was a half marathon in Thailand. Naomi had a very good friend named Sonny that she knew from college in the United States. Sonny had since moved back to Thailand and was more than happy to host Solomon and show him around. Naomi bought the plane ticket and mailed Solomon the itinerary for his trip to Thailand.
Naomi also registered Solomon for the race which brings us to the issue of Solomon using a different name from the name he uses in the United States. In Ethiopia, all boys take on the first name of their father as their last name. In Ethiopia, his name is Solomon Semunguse because his father's name is Semunguse Haile, but in the United States, his name is Solomon Semunguse Haile since his father's last name was Haile. The naming complexity is an issue that all Ethiopian immigrants face when moving to the United States.
The Thailand race is also where the age controversy began. After so long away from home, Naomi did not remember all of the birthdays of her eight brothers and sisters, so she asked Solomon. Solomon told Naomi his birthday based on the Ethiopian calendar which is very different from the American calendar that we all know. The days are different. The months are different. The years are very different.
Naomi of course knew about the calendar difference and converted his birthday to the year that most of the world uses. She should have double checked her math. With a simple math conversion error, she lit the flame for the age controversy that Solomon was later attacked for when he began racing in high school.
False internet rumor: Solomon lied about his age so he would not need a guardian's signature to race.
Fact: Solomon never lied about his age. He did not notice the age mistake that his sister made.
Solomon won the race in Thailand and returned home raving to everyone about how amazing his trip had been. He had the time of his life and his confidence in his running ability was at an all time high. He begged his sister to send him somewhere else to do it again.
Naomi was pleased that her plans were effective in boosting Solomon's confidence and began searching for another race to send him to. She began making plans to send him on a trip to her Aunt's home in Rome to race in Italy. She registered him for the race and therefore the race directors were expecting him. That trip, however, never transpired. He did not run that race.
After the Italy trip fell through, Naomi arranged a trip to Vienna where he could stay with their cousin Judy and family. She once again registered Solomon for a half marathon, but since neither she nor Solomon caught the mistake that she made on the previous registration, she used the same exact birthday as the Thailand trip.
False internet rumor: Solomon claimed that the "Solomon Semunguse" that raced in Austria was not him.
Fact: Solomon never made such a claim. Coach Dan Reeks suggested that it was probably someone else, but later admitted that he was wrong.
A month after the race in Austria, Solomon finally moved in with his sister Naomi who was living in McLean, Virginia at that time. Solomon is the youngest of nine children in his family and it made sense to his sisters to bring him over to the United States after their mother passed away. The intention was to go to school, get an education, and seek great opportunities in America.
While Solomon became accustomed to the area, his sister helped him to enter several road races in the Washington, D.C. area. Naomi opened an account on active.com so that she could enter all of his information once and not have to do it again. Unfortunately, she entered the same birth date on active.com that she used for the previous races. Every race he would run in the United States would list him as twenty years old.
False internet rumor: Solomon came to the US and listed his age as 20 in search of an agent and a professional career.
Fact: Solomon grew accustomed to his entry fee getting waived and told a reporter that he was upset the entry fee was not waived. However, Solomon has never said that he races for money. This is a conclusion that a reporter wrongly jumped to.
Solomon came to the US in October of 2007 and did not attend a class at high school until January of 2008. This begs the question: what he was doing and why wasn't he enrolled in school immediately?
Naomi admits that she and her sisters did not know anything about the US school system since they only came to the United States for college education. They were intimidated by the process of enrolling Solomon in high school, but did begin looking into it in a reasonable time frame.
False internet rumor: Solomon was denied entry into multiple schools in Virginia before moving to Maryland where his documentation was finally accepted.
Fact: Solomon always had legitimate documentation and was never denied entry into any school.
The first thing that they found was that he needed to live with his legal guardian and go to school in the district in which she lived. His legal guardian was Eden Haile, the oldest of the Haile siblings living in the United States. Eden lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. Solomon began the process of moving in with Eden and enrolling in a Montgomery County Public School.
Solomon was tested by the school system for his English reading and writing skills. A score of 1, 2, or 3 requires the student to attend a school that has a special ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program. A score of 4, indicating satisfactory English skills, would allow him to go to the school in the district in which he lived. Solomon scored 3 on the exam and was assigned to go to Sherwood High School by the school system. He was not recruited by the school. He did not seek out Sherwood because of its running program. He was assigned to Sherwood.
False internet rumor: Solomon lives with a group of Ethiopian men who are training to become professionals.
Fact: Solomon takes a bus to school from Eden Haile's house every day. Coach Reeks usually takes him home after practice.
By the time everything settled, Solomon was attending class at Sherwood in January, three months after he moved to the United States. It took him still more time to find Reeks and join the school's indoor track team. By the time he joined the team, there were not enough meets left before the regional meet to be eligible to participate at regionals or states. His indoor season would only consist of one race against local competition before the Nike Indoor National Championship. That one local high school race in which he ran 3200 meters in 9:17 was enough to garner national attention and all of the rumors that came with it. It was then and only then that Naomi and Solomon realized the mistake that had been made on the entry form to all of the races that he had run, but at Reeks' suggestion, they ignored all of the rumors and accusations.
Solomon has always been gracious and polite to anyone he has ever met. He has never given anyone reason to believe that he is a fraud, liar, or cheater as he has been called many times on the internet. Being from a different country with a different language, calendar, and culture has caused confusion, but even the mistakes that have been made were not his fault. He has trained very hard and earned everything that he has accomplished. He is competing for his school and as a hopeful U.S. citizen, but does not feel comfortable competing because of the things that are said about him. Now that people know the truth about the age issue, the cash prizes, and the truth about his travels around the world and to the United States, he and his family plead that people let go of what they wanted to believe and support Solomon as he continues to compete at the highest level of high school athletics. At the very least, please be courteous with the comments and do not present fictitious rumors. Tomorrow it could be any other young man who is only trying to be humble and be the fastest runner he can possibly be.
Mocorunning.com is not affiliated with Montgomery County Public Schools or any athletic governing body in any way