The Keflezighi Controversy

Keflezighi striding home to his NYC victory. PhotoRun.net

Some say Meb Keflezighi is not really American. Probably the same people who say Barack Obama is not really an American.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

The headline says it all: “To Some, Winner Is Not American Enough.” It appears above an article printed in the November 3, 2009 edition of the New York Times and it refers to a mostly online controversy that erupted in the wake of Eritrea-born American citizen Mebrahtom Kelflezighi’s victory in last Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon.

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The first round of headlines issued in the U.S. media after Keflezighi crossed the finish line first in 2:09:14 was celebratory. The story was not “Meb Keflezighi Wins New York City Marathon” but rather “American Wins New York City Marathon For First Time Since 1982.” But then, in the next 24 hours, it was as if one-third or two-fifths or some other fraction of the spectacle’s direct and indirect observers said, “Hey, wait a minute: That guy’s not really an American!” Hence the next round of headlines.

The observer who protested against the initial, celebratory headlines most influentially was sports talk radio personality Darren Rovell, who in an article posted on cnbc.com wrote, “Nothing against Keflezighi, but he’s like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.”

Before I explain why this opinion is troubling to me, I will first say this: There is an undeniable difference between American and American-born. The correlation between the intensity of partisanship on the part of sports fans and the strength of the geographic association between fans and the athletes they support is natural and requires no justification. While I almost always root for naturalized American runners against runners from other countries, I almost always root for American-born runners more ardently than I do for naturalized American runners, and for runners from New Hampshire (my home state) more ardently than I do for runners from the other 49 states. The closer to home an athlete’s victory is, the more special it is to me. That’s just a natural law of sports fandom, and there’s nothing wrong with it as far as I can see.

So, as an American, I was very glad to see Meb Keflezighi win the New York City Marathon, but I would have been even happier to see Ryan Hall win, frankly, because Keflezighi was born in Eritrea and Hall was born in the United States. What complicates this preference is, of course, race. Almost all of the top American-born distance runners are white, while almost all of the top naturalized American runners are black. But while I do believe that the potential for skin-color prejudice lurks inside every person, myself included, I am pretty confident that (especially as a white man married to a black woman) I need not attribute any part of the slightly greater intensity of my support for Hall than for Keflezighi to racial bias.

The crucial difference between my perspective on this matter and Darren Rovell’s, I believe, is that Rovell feels no patriotic association whatsoever with Keflezighi. Rovell thinks in binary terms: either you are American born or you are not American. I think in terms of a spectrum. For example, I feel a much stronger patriotic association with Keflezighi, who came to this country as a child and who started running only after coming here, than I do with Bernard Lagat, who was born and raised in Kenya and represented Kenya in the 2000 Olympics and only became a U.S. citizen in 2004, when he was 29 years old. But Rovell, it would appear, makes no such distinctions.

It bears repeating: Darren Rovell, and those who share his feelings with respect to this controversy, feel no patriotic association whatsoever with an athlete who is a United States citizen and has lived in America longer than he has been a runner. I suppose they can’t help it, but I fear that it is an ugly instinct that makes them view Keflezighi as so thoroughly “other”—as less “one of us” than he really is.

Am I calling Rovell and his sympathizers on this issue racists? No, I’m not. I’m just saying they felt no pride—none—when Keflezighi won the New York City Marathon mainly because Keflezighi is black.

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