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

(This is the third and final 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, and part two is here.)
In a 2005 Sports Illustrated piece, Dathan Ritzenhein, ninth in this year’s Olympic Marathon, said, “Meb [Keflezighi] has my respect as a great runner, a great person and a great American, but I’m sure it’s hard for some people to differentiate between Meb and the East African runners who seem to dominate the sport.” Ritzenhein thus carefully made explicit what seems to lie within the current of grumbling dissent about the Americanization of Meb, two-time U.S. 10,000-meter Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, Lopez Lomong, and others: The East Africans are naturally better, so at least give us a chance to beat them – or not – with our own athletes, not with theirs. Viewed thusly, it seems just as likely that stronger inherent resistance to African immigrant runners than to those from Europe, such as Lewy Boulet and Belgian-born Eddy Hellebuyck in his pre-drug suspension days, is rooted not in Africans’ generally looking different from a “typical” American, but in the assumption that Europeans do not enjoy Africans’ intrinsic advantage.
Champions of an all-embracing ethos often dismiss those who admit to viewing naturalized athletes in a different light with statements such as “We’re a nation of immigrants” and “We all came here from somewhere else.” Such observations are well-meaning, but trivially wrong. In fact, most Americans are demonstrably not immigrants; to make erroneous claims like this only opens the door to further bickering.


The accusation that those who view U.S.-born Americans differently from those who moved here later is necessarily contemptuous is difficult to defend. In particular, supporters of naturalized citizens’ paying tribute to their former homelands can hardly portray people who more readily identify with “real” Americans as rascals. Just as Meb’s celebration at Hornet Stadium eight years ago and his lapel pin can be taken as a sort of inter-cultural ecumenism, most of us who grew up riding school buses, eating at McDonald’s, and listening to 1980s synth-pop will relate more readily to the background of an Alan Webb than to that of a Khannouchi. Within our borders, we do not chastise Latinos, inner-city African-Americans, or others for expressing themselves through their unique, powerful, and history-rich forms of art and literature, so why is it surprising when an average Joe from Anytown instinctively feels more of a connection to athletes, entertainers, and other high-profile figures who tend to remind him of, well, himself?
There is a difference between actively accepting and embracing a foreign-born runner and feeling an innate sense of kinship with him or her – and these acts are not at odds. It is possible, and generally encouraged, to temper one’s world view so as to be more accommodating of people from around the globe, whether they visit or live in America or not. But it is no more possible for a bank teller from Salt Lake City to appreciate what it’s like to grow up in Khartoum than it is for a young man in Eldoret to grasp the intricacies of a culture powered largely by text messaging and whose people are often loath to walk from place to place when distances over a half a mile are at issue.
It is important to emphasize that the foreign-born star runners in the current U.S. pool are a reflection of America’s consistent embracing of other people from all over, not of a “hired gun” mentality. No one asked Lomong or Abdirahman to come here and try out for the Olympics. Qatar has taken to flat-out buying runners from Kenya; compare that practice to youngsters finding refuge from literal wars in America and much later going on to become star athletes, or foreigners seeking a college education in America and only then becoming standout runners, as was the case with Abdi.
Even had there been no such thing as immigration to the United States for the past fifty years, we would remain today a vast country with a staggering and gratifying variety of traditions, languages, genealogies, and customs. Each of us observe a lot of differences between ourselves and those with different backgrounds, but in the main we recognize one another fundamentally as Americans whose belonging is no less strong than our own. As some of the eyebrow-raising events that unfolded at the 2008 Olympic Trials reminded us, America’s distance runners do not receive close to the same level of support as athletes in other sports, so if we truly care about American greatness in any guise – and this is not necessarily a responsibility – then it is incumbent upon us as fans to do what we can to help our best become even better. If some find the fact that many of our best come from somewhere else bothersome, perhaps they should ask themselves why, or suggest alternatives.

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  1. #1 by John on February 22, 2009 - 1:12 pm

    Very interesting essay. It’s probably true that many Americans lack the common cultural ground to identify with a Lagat or a Lamong. And that probably does explain some of the widespread consternation over their presence in and dominance of American elite distance running.
    While it was not an intention of the essay, I also think that I finally understand why I DON’T identify with Ryan Hall and Galen Rupp and the rest of the blonde darlings of the American running media! Those guys are great runners, and I respect them for that. But I doubt that these squeaky clean middle-class kids share many of the cultural experiences of an American such as myself from a lower-class socioeconomic background. That might explain why I find myself identifying far more with the marginalized immigrants of big-time American track and field than with the athletes who look more like me!

  2. #2 by John on February 22, 2009 - 1:12 pm

    Very interesting essay. It’s probably true that many Americans lack the common cultural ground to identify with a Lagat or a Lamong. And that probably does explain some of the widespread consternation over their presence in and dominance of American elite distance running.
    While it was not an intention of the essay, I also think that I finally understand why I DON’T identify with Ryan Hall and Galen Rupp and the rest of the blonde darlings of the American running media! Those guys are great runners, and I respect them for that. But I doubt that these squeaky clean middle-class kids share many of the cultural experiences of an American such as myself from a lower-class socioeconomic background. That might explain why I find myself identifying far more with the marginalized immigrants of big-time American track and field than with the athletes who look more like me!

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