From the Streets of Chicago

Israel’s 400m track champ sets his sights, optimistically, on the Olympics

FOUR THOUSAND fans rose to their feet to cheer Naor Greene as he carried the Israeli flag on a victory lap around the track at the Hadar Yosef stadium in Ramat Gan. The 28-year-old Chicago native had just won the 400-meter dash at July’s 66th annual Israeli track and field championships, in a time of 46.84 seconds, shaving two-tenths of a second off the eight-year-old national record in the process.

The soft-spoken, powerfully built Greene shrugs off his accomplishment when he’s interviewed by The Jerusalem Report a few days later on the same track, during a break in one of his twice-a-day training sessions. “Being Israeli champion isn’t that difficult,” he says, shrugging. “I don’t really have anyone here to compete with.”

Greene had hoped to qualify for August’s European Championships in Munich, but he’s been fractionally outside the minimum qualifying time. He’s still hoping he’ll find a way to meet the world’s best runners – ideally at the 2004 Athens Olympics. “I’m a highly trained stallion, and I want to run with the other stallions,” he says.

The national title was Greene’s second big victory in four months. The first was winning a two-year battle with the Interior Ministry for Israeli citizenship. His parents, African-American converts to Judaism, immigrated from Chicago in 1995. Greene came three years later for a six-month trial visit, then returned for good in 2000. He can’t explain why he wasn’t granted citizenship immediately, or why the ministry finally relented this year. “One morning, they told me I could come over and pick up my Israeli ID card.” He discounts suggestions that his athletic prowess may have softened the hearts of the bureaucrats.

Speaking in the cadence of Chicago’s South Side, Greene says he takes the difficulties he’s encountered philosophically: “If you come to a new country, it ain’t gonna be peaches and cream. In life you have to endure. Embrace the sweetness along with the bitterness.”

Still, he acknowledges that “those two years without citizenship were bitter.” He wasn’t able to get a regular job or afford an apartment, and spent most nights sleeping on the couches of athletes he trained with. “The only thing that kept my spirits high was working out. It was a burden that weighed me down, but I didn’t break. It only made me stronger. And when I got citizenship, I started to run without that burden. And I ran faster.”

SPORTS HAVE always been part of Naor Greene’s life. His parents were both involved in recreational sports, his mother as a runner and his father in wrestling.

But what really molded him were the streets of Chicago. “It didn’t matter what neighborhood you were from, or who you were. What mattered was how well you played the game, any game. Soccer. Basketball. Street hockey. Street baseball.”

After high school, Greene moved to Boston, where he took some classes at Northeastern University, and was spotted by a track coach when playing in a pick-up basketball game on a campus court. The coach asked if he’d ever thought of running in competition. Greene jumped at the chance. “I was always hungry to try out a new sport, so I got on the track and whooped everybody out there,” he recalls.

He began running for a local club, and in the late 1990s decided to pursue his running career in Israel, where his parents – together with his seven brothers and two sisters – were now living. He made his mark at the 1998 Israeli championships as a foreign runner, winning the 400 in 48.0 seconds.

The young athlete came to the attention of the department dealing with new immigrants at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports, Israel’s premier sports-training facility. “He was a raw talent,” says Wingate’s Amnon Gur. “But he worked hard here, and he has the potential to go much further.”

These days, Greene lives in Ramat Gan – so that he can be close to the track. Now that he’s a citizen, Maccabi Tel Aviv provides him with a grant, training facilities and diet supplements. He boosts his income by working as a personal trainer in two Tel Aviv gyms. “I enjoy that work,” he says, “but, naturally, I’d rather be able to train full-time.”

He’s working to improve his speed with Valentine Bondarenko, a new immigrant who coached the national track team in his native Ukraine, including Zhanna Pintusevich-Bloch, winner of gold medals in the 200 meters at the 1997 World Championships and the 100 meters in the 2001 Worlds. (Greene studied Hebrew in an ulpan, but can only communicate with Bondarenko, who speaks no Hebrew and little English, through an interpreter.)

Bondarenko is confident his charge could improve enough to run 45.70 seconds, the Olympic qualifying time, “if he had sponsorship to train full-time.” (The world record, held by Michael Johnson of the United States, is 43.18).

Someday, somewhere, Greene also hopes he’ll get the chance to compete against Palestinian runners. “They have the Olympics so that different nations can compete without shedding blood,” he says. “And I’d like to meet the Palestinians on the racetrack, not the battlefield.”

Ideally, too, he wishes track and field competitions – overseas and in Israel – didn’t take place on Saturdays. “I don’t want to desecrate the Shabbat by running. Shabbat is supposed to be holy,” he says. But for now, he does run on Saturdays. “If I refused, I’d be running all by myself. But when I race, I say hallelujah, praise the Lord, I am representing Israel and the Jewish people.”

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