Abdi Bile Abdi is no longer puzzled by the strange Americans with their taste for beer and the loathsome cheese and tomato stuff called pizza. Nor is he surprised when they call him by the wrong name, Abdi Abdi, which is often.
He settled the matter of his name one day when he walked over to George Mason's track coach, John Cook, smiled and demonstrated his excellent English. "Calling me that," Cook recalled him saying, "is like me calling you Cook Cook."
The correct manner of address, should you happen to encounter the runner in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu, or the more likely setting of the Seoul Olympics in 1988, is Abdi Bile.
Recently, he became the NCAA champion in the 1,500 meters. It was one of two NCAA titles for George Mason at the Division I outdoor track and field championships in Austin, Tex. The Patriots' Rob Muzzio won the decathlon.
For once and for all, then, because chances are good he will be heard from again, his last name is considered Bile, pronounced "Billy" in Somalia, and it is strictly an Americanization to call him that other thing that makes it sound as if he doesn't know there's only one of him.
Bile, a sophomore who carried the Somalian flag in the Los Angeles Olympics last summer, was the first foreign track runner to be recruited by George Mason, which he chose because, among other reasons, it was near Washington and thus close to the Somalian embassy. Cook recruited him sight unseen on the advice of a Somalian runner at Fairleigh Dickinson.
Bile's first taste of American living came when he stepped off the plane. Cook, relieved to know that the frail foreigner at least looked like a runner, decided to take his new charge out for pizza, for which Abdi developed an immediate distaste. When he is asked now what he would like for dinner, he tends to reply, "No pizza."
If Bile had some trouble adjusting to his new surroundings, Cook has been equally confounded by his star athlete at times. Prior to his 1,500 heat in Austin, Bile startled his coach by announcing that he was required by his Moslem faith to fast during the day for a period and could eat only between sunset and sunrise.
"Abdi," Cook said, "You can't do that."
They finally compromised. Bile ate a meal and won the 1,500. The agreement was that he would return to his fast after the championships and forgo competition in any more races until the summer.
"You don't go crazy with Abdi," Cook said. "If I go to war with him, I'd lose in the long run because I'd lose his trust. I said, 'Hey, let's just go through the NCAAs.' Now, everybody wants him to run. I want him to run, too. It's against my nature not to. But I tell people who want him that he's not running now, he's fasting."
Because of his background, Bile casts a fresh eye on U.S. culture, and couples it with wit and a good command of English. Of Austin, he said, "I do not like Texas. It is so far from everything."
He has not always been comfortable here, and frankly misses Somalia, where he plans to return and go into his family's import-export business after earning a business degree. The worst time was when he was a recent arrival and trying to learn the confusing business of being a college freshman in the United States.
"At first, I had culture shock," he said. "The climate, the food, all that stuff. Everything was new. I was trying to learn the way of living in this country."
There are two other Somalian runners at George Mason now, both largely recruited by Bile -- freshmen Ibrahim Okash and Ahmed Ismail. Prior to their arrival, however, Cook was virtually Bile's only close acquaintance. Serious about his faith, he was shocked by some of the goings-on in his dorm, and took refuge with his coach.
"Moslems are very straight," said Cook, who has become interested enough in his protege to start studying the subject. "There were a lot of things he saw that hurt him -- let's face it, the drugs, the alcohol, the sex. It's a Friday night at college, can you imagine? But now I think he's learned to take the good in us and leave the other things alone. He doesn't get caught up in the societal habits."
Bile is training -- while he is fasting -- for two meets in Europe and Africa this summer, with the aim of competing in the World Cup track meet in Australia in October. To him, his religion and running are not in conflict, which Cook gradually has realized.
Until his NCAA championship, Bile's career had been a strange and not always successful one. One concern for Cook has been Bile's 6-foot-2, 150-pound frame. He puts in considerably less time running than do most of his counterparts because he has been accident prone.
At the NCAA meet last year, Bile was warming up on the sidelines for the final when he stepped on a switch box and broke a bone in his foot. He missed most of the indoor season this year when he ruptured a vertebra lifting a paint bucket in a theater class. He thought it was empty, but it was a full, 50-gallon container.
"Theater, right?" Cook said. "We thought it was a nice, safe class."
The most disappointing incident of his career, however, came during the Los Angeles Olympics last summer. He ran well in the semifinal heat of the 1,500, only to discover afterward he had been disqualified. A Brazilian runner had fallen during the race, and Bile was accused of bumping him.
"The guy who fell down was running behind me," he said. "How do you push someone when they are behind you? I just know that I made the final, and it was tragic."
The incident makes the 1988 Olympics all the more inviting. Cook contends he could be the favorite.
"I believe that with patience and a little luck, Abdi is going to be one of the great milers in the world," he said. "I knew all the time I had an athlete. It's just been a question of getting him to the starting line."