American distance running faces: an ever-expanding controversy

(This is the first installment of a three-part article originally written for the online edition of Running Times Magazine, which subsequently and inexplicably elected not to run it.)
In distance running, the competition-crazed United States perennially fails to match up to the standards of much smaller, poorer nations. We’re used to getting our way on the scoreboard, and when countries that “shouldn’t” be able to overcome our wealth, population, training facilities, and pride give us a good shellacking, we balk and scowl.
While there’s been something of a resurgence at the top level of American running in recent years, these standout efforts have, in most cases, been put forth by Americans born and raised, in whole or in part, outside of the United States.
Running Times looked at this issue almost six years ago, focusing largely on Meb Keflezighi, Khalid Khannouchi, Mark Plaatjes, and Colleen De Reuck. Khannouchi and Meb hold U.S. records in the marathon and the 10,000 meters respectively; Plaatjes won the World Championship Marathon mere weeks after earning the right to wear a U.S. uniform, and De Reuck placed third in the 2001 World Cross-Country Championship. (Showing their bias, authors Jonathan Beverly and Roger Robinson claimed that “runners are also the most accepting of people” while assuring readers that “some of [soccer’s] fans are among the world’s most bigoted humans.” A simple perusal of Internet blogs and chat boards suggests otherwise.)
Since then, the diversity has become more pronounced. While homegrown talent has hardly been stagnant–Alan Webb set a national record in the mile (3:46.91) in 2007, and Ryan Hall ran by far the fastest marathon ever (2:06:17) by a U.S.-born man–but recent years have seen a steady rise in the impact of naturalized Americans in championship events. In 2004, Keflezighi fought his way through the heat and hills of Athens to claim an Olympic silver medal in the marathon, possibly the most distinguished and moving performance by an American distance runner since Frank Shorter grabbed gold in the same event in 1972. And in 2007, Bernard Lagat, who finished second in the 1,500 in Athens while running for Kenya despite having obtained U.S. citizenship months earlier (circumstances detailed in a lengthy Running Times profile of Lagat in the July/August 2008 issue), recorded an unprecedented double 1,500/5,000 World Champs win in Osaka, Japan.
The men’s 1,500-meter final at this year’s Olympic Track and Field Trials was the most compelling example of foreign influence on a U.S. championship. When Lagat, Leonel Manzano (who was born in Mexico but has lived in the U.S. since the age of four) and Lopez Lomong (a Sudanese native who became a U.S. citizen in 2007) crossed the finish line a half-second clear of the rest, it marked not only the conclusion of a spectacular race and of the Trials themselves, but of the Olympic dreams of a pair of iconic, if not universally adored, U.S.-born milers: Webb and the embodiment of diehard eccentricity, Gabriel Jennings.
All told, of the twelve available spots in the men’s distance events, five were filled by immigrant Americans, and three of the four finals were won by African-born runners. Indeed, only moments after the 1,500 final was in the books, the ripple of dissatisfaction coursing through the Internet – some might call it disgust – was palpable: Is this the best we can do?
Such comments expose the gnarled roots of the entire issue. When people make distinctions between naturalized Americans and those who have held citizenship from their first breaths, are their reviews necessarily racist (a common refrain) or even divisive? Or is it more an indictment of the American “system” – inasmuch as a centralized or harmonized means of recruiting and developing distance talent can even be said to exist here, or anywhere – and the concomitant, literal failure of the boys and girls next door to keep up?

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