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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  1. #1 by Julie on January 5, 2009 - 3:37 pm

    The “not really American” attitude reflects, unfortunately, a provincialism and defensiveness that permeates American culture. It’s not everywhere and in everyone, but its pervasiveness is, I suspect, due to the way we think of citizenship in this country: as an “all or nothing” proposition.
    Other civilized nations allow dual citizenship, acknowledging that having deep personal ties to another country need not threaten those ties to the adopted country. Here, we make our newly minted citizens take an oath of allegiance to the new and repudiation of the old.
    A “formerly Dutch” friend of mine, who because a US citizen as a teenager, described the naturalization process as one of the more traumatic experiences of her life. She went so far as cross her fingers when speaking the oath through angry tears. And my partner of 18 years, a Brit, has kept his UK citizenship for the same reason; better to live forever in the US as an “alien” on his own terms than to become a citizen and be treated like one anyway on someone else’s.
    As for running, I like the fact that we have so many fantastic runners who hail from other countries representing the US, although I root for good runners regardless of where they’re from. My admiration is for the individual, not the nationality.

  2. #2 by Anonymous on January 5, 2009 - 3:46 pm

    The USA has largely achieved on the backs of immigrants . If this is changed then the true nature of the USA will surface – including non achievement .

  3. #3 by Markk on January 5, 2009 - 5:48 pm

    The U.S. allows dual citizenship. Having traveled and talked to many immigrants I’ll put my anecdote against yours Julie :-) and say the people I knew, several from the Himalayan region, several from Egypt, several from the far east, found the U.S. to be a far more welcoming place than Europe, or China. Yes there are always people who are anti-foreign. This is true everywhere though, so one must look at levels of physical harm and opportunity.
    Anon – If the US has largely achieved on the backs of immigrants than that IS its true nature no? That is, a place where people can come and be successful. That is not a bad thing.
    By the way, this is an excellent series of posts. It always seems interesting to me to look at the tips of the distibutions of human talent. Hmm… I guess this is interesting to many others, why else the World Championships in everything!

  4. #4 by Julie on January 5, 2009 - 9:50 pm

    The U.S. allows dual citizenship.
    Well, you learn something new every day.

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