American distance running faces: an ever-expanding controversy, continued

(This is the second 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. Part one is here.)
n 2005, as Meb Keflezighi prepared to run the New York City Marathon, he told Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden: “I’ve done all my running here: junior high, high school, college, Olympics. How much more American can you get?” Khalid Khannouchi, meanwhile, interviewed two years earlier for the aforementioned RT article, put the matter just as succinctly and forcefully: “I will never forget my roots, and [Morocco] is where I am from. [But] it is great to be called an American, to be a citizen now. I am happy to be known as a Moroccan-born American. That is what I am.”
Meb, Khannouchi, and a parade of other foreign-born Americans have dealt amicably and patiently over the years with these sorts of questions. But as is often the case when matters tangential to politics are in play, most of the noise comes from those with no discernible stake in the issue.
Meb wears a pin on his racing singlet that includes images of both the Eritrean and American flags. After winning the 10,000 meters at the 2000 Olympic Trials in Sacramento, Meb ran a victory lap while waving the flags of both nations aloft, a display that quickly aroused the ire of a predictable subset of the populace, whose members decreed that Meb should decide on one nation or the other and be done with it. His defenders in turn pointed out that he was merely paying homage to his heritage; becoming an American citizen, after all, does not and need not wipe out years of memories both fond and chilling. And it is impossible for anyone without a heart of stone to digest the story of Lopez Lomong’s childhood, when as one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys” he spent ten years in a refugee camp in addition to enduring other atrocities and hardships, with a dry eye. Nevertheless, some seem to expect that the reception of American citizenship carries with it the responsibility of abdicating so much of what leads people to pursue freedom, to accomplish great things, to triumph over hard luck and worse circumstances, in the first place.
In an interview with National Public Radio in June, Lagat, in effect asked to explain how he perceives his own Americanism, said: “I love eating a lot of meat. I barbecue about four times a week. So those are very important for me. I love it.”
Lagat’s tongue-in-cheek justification is understandable, given the particulars of the process by which he became a U.S. citizen and forsook his Kenyan ties – which, in an unusual twist, occurred in that order. Yet the irony is unmistakable: Would it make Lagat any less American if he were a vegetarian or had a tattoo of Marvin the Martian on his forehead? Isn’t the freedom to choose one’s own identity and destiny exactly what makes people flock to the United States in the first place? And most important of all, who gets to decide, beyond government-issued documentation, when someone’s becoming American is less meaningful than being American?

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