Meb Keflezighi won the New York City Marathon last November. During the race, instead of the usual sponsor splashed across his chest, Meb was wearing a singlet showing the country he is a citizen of: the United States of America. As the first American to win the race, male or female, since 1982, it was a proud moment for U.S. running, and it seemed almost surreal that Meb chose to wear his Team USA shirt for this—his first victory ever in a major marathon.
However, the immediate discussion popping up in newspapers and around the Internet was that Meb, born in Eritrea and having become an American citizen in 1998, was not a “real” American. Also, this was in no way good for U.S. running for that same reason—he was not American. Arguments of this nature are incorrect simply because they mix the issues. (Interesting side note: the last American to win prior to Meb was Cuban-born Alberto Salazar.)
This past weekend at the Miami Marathon I spent time with two American runners. However, I was the only one born in the United States. Our discussion went to Meb and his victory. We were almost in complete agreement about most of the underlying issues.
-American long distance running had been in a swoon for a very long time but seems to be rebounding.
-People want American distance running to get better.
-Whether they would admit it or not, some were hoping that “American distance running” would have far paler skin than Meb.
Without delving too deep into the underlying racial issues here, it was clear to see that part of the problem was not only that Meb was not born in the U.S., but his victory did not exactly signal the beginning of the return to American-born preeminence in distance running. This was where the confusion in the question lies.
First and foremost, Meb is 100-percent American. Any argument otherwise is ignorant of U.S. law. He is a citizen of the United States, and unlike many of those who just happened to be born in the confines of this country, he actually had to take a test to show his knowledge of American history. There is nothing further to discuss with regards to Meb’s citizenship.
However, the question about the dominance of African-born distance running remains. Whether it is genetics, the nature of the lives of those runners (high altitude training, lack of modern conveniences which make running a way out, etc.) or anything else which seems to make those of the Rift Valley this decade’s better runners remains to be seen.