As soon as Mebrahtom Keflezighi, better known as Meb, won the New York City Marathon on Sunday, an uncommon sports dispute erupted online, fraught with racial and nationalistic components: Should Keflezighi’s triumph count as an American victory?
Keflezighi in California after he finished second in the 2004 Olympic marathon. “I’ve been here 22 years,” he said of the United States.
He was widely celebrated as the first American to win the New York race since 1982. Having immigrated to the United States at age 12, he is an American citizen and a product of American distance running programs at the youth, college and professional levels.
But, some said, because he was born in Eritrea, he is not really an American runner.
The debate reveals what some academics say are common assumptions and stereotypes about race and sports and athletic achievement in the United States. Its dimensions, they add, go beyond the particulars of Keflezighi and bear on undercurrents of nationalism and racism that are not often voiced.
“Race is still extremely important when you think about athletics,” said David Wiggins, a professor at George Mason University who studies African-Americans and sports. “There is this notion about innate physiological gifts that certain races presumably possess. Quite frankly, I think it feeds into deep-seated stereotypes. The more blatant forms of racial discrimination and illegal forms have been eliminated, but more subtle forms of discrimination still exist.”
There are few cases parallel to Keflezighi’s in American sports. Some are noteworthy because of how little discussion, by comparison, they generated over the athlete’s nationality. For example, the Hall of Fame basketball player Patrick Ewing (Jamaica) and the gold medal gymnast Nastia Liukin (Russia) were born abroad, but when they represented the United States in competition, they seemingly did not encounter the same skepticism that Keflezighi has.
Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, said the argument about Keflezighi “tells us there are people that still have racial red flags go up when certain things happen.”
He added: “Many people think that with an African-American president, we are in a postracial society. Clearly, we are not.”
The online postings about Keflezighi were anonymous. One of the milder ones on Letsrun.com said: “Give us all a break. It’s just another African marathon winner.”
A comment on The New York Times’s site said: “Keflezighi is really another elite African runner by birth, upbringing, and training. Americans are kidding themselves if they say he represents a resurgence of American distance prowess! On the other hand, he is an excellent representative of how we import everything we need!”
In a commentary on CNBC.com, Darren Rovell 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.”
Keflezighi said on Monday that remarks about his heritage were not new. “I’ve had to deal with it,” he said. “But, hey, I’ve been here 22 years. And the U.S.A. is a land of immigrants. A lot of people have come from different places.”
The last American to win the New York race, Alberto Salazar, was also born in another country. He came to the United States from Cuba when he was 2. When he won, though, he did not hear grumbling about whether he should be considered an American. He pointed out two differences between his case and Keflezighi’s: Salazar is Hispanic, not black; and when he won in 1982, the Internet, in its current form, did not exist.
The argument that Keflezighi is not really an American makes little sense, Salazar said in a telephone interview.
“What if Meb’s parents had moved to this country a year before he was born?” he said. At what point is someone truly American? “Only if your family traces itself back to 1800, will it count?”
The issue previously arose when Keflezighi won a silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics, said Weldon Johnson, a founder of Letsrun.com. So when the negative postings appeared Sunday, he said, “I did not like seeing them, but I was not surprised.”
Perhaps the passion over Keflezighi’s victory stems from the despair over the state of American distance running. Americans used to be the best, in the 1970s and 1980s. But their time of glory waned as East Africans began dominating.
The success of distance runners from Kenya and Ethiopia fostered a lore of East Africans as genetically gifted, unbeatable, dominant because of their biology. Scientists have looked for — but not found — genes specific to East Africans that could account for their distance ability, said John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race and sports.
But, he said, “there is a difference between saying we don’t have a scientifically respectable conclusion and the very broad and perhaps mistaken claim that there is no physiological phenomenon here whatsoever.”
Regarding the question of whether East Africans have a genetic advantage, Hoberman said, “We don’t know.”
“The more relevant question is, who gets to represent the country?” he said, adding, “Only racists will insist that ‘our’ athletes meet specific racial criteria.”
Consternation over the race of elite American athletes is not new. A century ago, the notion of a “great white hope” emerged — a white boxer who whites hoped could beat the black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson.
In running, as African-American athletes excelled in sprints, they were said to lack the endurance or the fortitude to prevail in longer distances, Wiggins said. Then, when East Africans started to thrive, the argument changed to one claiming there are special East African genes.
“From my perspective, it is racist thinking at its utmost,” Wiggins said.
In Salazar’s view, Keflezighi’s victory is another indication that American distance running is coming back. Keflezighi never ran competitively before he came to the United States, and he did all his training here.
“Can American-born guys and gals compete?” Salazar said. “I think we are starting to see that.
“Does Meb resolve that argument? No. He wasn’t born here.
“And neither was I.”