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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  1. #1 by Markk on January 4, 2009 - 9:02 pm

    Isn’t this a numbers game like the women in chess study that was publicized a short time ago? If the training methods are roughly the same effectiveness everywhere, the population of runners not from the U.S. is roughly 20 times the size of the U.S. population. If we are allowing good runners in (and why not?) then wouldn’t this just be the expected result? Obviously culture and available opportunity will play a big role in sizing the population of top runners in various countries.

  2. #2 by Kevin Beck on January 4, 2009 - 9:13 pm

    “the population of runners not from the U.S. is
    roughly 20 times the size of the U.S. population.”

    True, but the world-class distance runners who are naturalized American citizens are not spread uniformly throughout that six-billion-strong remainder of the world’s population. Virtually all of them are from East Africa, and the ones from Kenya (pop. 38 million) come chiefly from one small province (Eldoret) with a population roughly equal to that of Tampa.
    So this is no random phenomenon, and can be traced to the availability of highly coveted NCAA scholarships to foreign distance runners, not just from Africa but from Canada, the UK, Ireland, a scattering of other European nations, Oceania, and (more rarely) Mexico. Those from richer nations do not have the same impetus to seek U.S. citizenship after graduating, but a lot of Africans enjoy it here and decide to not only stay and train, but become citizens. A lot of them send most of their prize-money earnings back to Kenya or Eritrea–dough that goes a very long way in these places.

  3. #3 by Kevin Beck on January 4, 2009 - 9:13 pm

    “the population of runners not from the U.S. is
    roughly 20 times the size of the U.S. population.”

    True, but the world-class distance runners who are naturalized American citizens are not spread uniformly throughout that six-billion-strong remainder of the world’s population. Virtually all of them are from East Africa, and the ones from Kenya (pop. 38 million) come chiefly from one small province (Eldoret) with a population roughly equal to that of Tampa.
    So this is no random phenomenon, and can be traced to the availability of highly coveted NCAA scholarships to foreign distance runners, not just from Africa but from Canada, the UK, Ireland, a scattering of other European nations, Oceania, and (more rarely) Mexico. Those from richer nations do not have the same impetus to seek U.S. citizenship after graduating, but a lot of Africans enjoy it here and decide to not only stay and train, but become citizens. A lot of them send most of their prize-money earnings back to Kenya or Eritrea–dough that goes a very long way in these places.

  4. #4 by Markk on January 5, 2009 - 5:38 pm

    Just because there are clusters, genetic, social or economic of really good runners doesn’t invalidate the numbers game. If there are clusters they are more likely to be in the non-US. From that all the rest follows. The fact that immigrants are over represented percentage wise, means that the U.S. is desirable as a place to live for many and wealthy enough for these people to find opportunities. I can’t help but think this is a good thing. My point wasn’t that the influx of good runners wasn’t there but rather, if you have a country with opportunities for good runners, then odds are, those that come will be better the the ones there already when the population is so disparate. There is no coaching or training (barring expensive drugs, or other exotics) that will change this.
    Of course the runners from poor countries have more incentive to come here. What is the percentage high class runners from other rich countries? Is it different than the U.S. because of immigration alone? Again to me that just is something to be proud of as a country – we welcome immigrants and provide opportunities for them. Non-uniform distribution of the elite or no – there will likely be more of them elsewhere than here when the numbers are so different.

  5. #5 by Kevin Beck on January 5, 2009 - 5:47 pm

    Sure, I agree with all of that. I thought before that you might have been suggesting that there was more or less an even distribution of talent around the globe and that the rise to prominence of so many foreign-born Americans was related simply to numbers (“normal” immigration plus 20 times as much talent in various Theres than Here) and not to the factors you describe in your last comment.
    Only recently have more Kenyans elected to renounce their Kenyan citizenship in favor competing for the U.S. Interestingly, this has come at a time when getting U.S. citizenship (or even a sports visa) has become a lot more difficult.
    Lagat’s case is strange because he was actually a U.S. citizen when he ran for Kenya in the 2004 Olympics; he just hadn’t made this public yet, as he knew that Kenya would not release him in time for him to run for either country in Athens. Kind of a shatball move, really, but there’s no question he loves the U.S. and wants to spend the rest of his running and non-running life here.

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