Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Born in the U.S.A. (well, not quite)

One of the most poignant moments from the recent World Track and Field Championships occurred when finally, after a 99-year-drought, an U.S. runner captured the men’s 1,500-meter title in a major (World or Olympic) championship. As he took a victory lap while carrying the USA flag over his head, television announcers gushed over this feel-good story.

So why wasn’t everyone thrilled? Because the winner was Bernard Lagat and not Alan Webb, who many were pulling for to win the gold medal. Not that anyone has anything against Lagat. By all accounts he is one of the nicest and most personable athletes in the track world. I can personally vouch for that, as my one encounter with Lagat was most pleasant. After the Reebok Indoor Games Track Meet in Boston a few years ago, Lagat was walking toward us after the meet had concluded. He stopped to talk with a few of us, smiling and chatting amiably. He seemed very down to earth for one of the world’s fastest milers. The problem, at least in some track fans’ minds, is that Lagat is not a “born here” American, but rather earned U.S. citizenship in just the past few years. In the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, Lagat competed for his “born here” country, Kenya. In their minds, that disqualifies him from being a “true” U.S. athlete, unlike someone like Webb, who has spent his entire life as a U.S. citizen.

Lagat is hardly alone. Many world class runners compete now for nations in which they have earned citizenship as adults. Among them are Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman, who both have excellent chances of making the U.S. marathon team for next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing. The Olympic Trials will be held in New York City in early November, and you can bet that many “born here” Americans are discouraged by the fact that these two speed merchants will be on the starting line in the trials.

Many former Kenyans now compete for other nations, Qatar in particular. But this does not seem to bother many people as much as Lagat winning gold, especially as he did in the 5,000 meters in Osaka (in addition to the 1,500). In that race, American Matt Tegenkamp barley missed a bronze medal, his fast-closing sprint on the last lap, coming up just three-one-hundredths of a second short. Would Tegenkamp have earned a medal had Lagat not been in the race? Who knows?

It is and should be noted that at one point or another, all of our ancestors came from somewhere else. They were not “born here” Americans. Would we have been bothered had they won an honor for their new country?

Another issue this brings up is the question of why athletes compete for nationalities at all. Can’t major championships simply invite the fastest and strongest athletes in the world and award individual medals? In the old World Cup track championships held in the 1970s, athletes competed for one of eight “continents,” such as North America, Europe, Asia, or my favorite, Oceania. There was a lot less national fervor in this set up, and a lot less interest as well. Once the World Championships were started in 1983, this format was quickly forgotten, never to be used again.

Like it or not, national pride is a big part of these world events, and probably always will be. Athletes competing for these countries as newly-minted citizens are part of the new world order as well. So like it or not, Bernard Lagat has vaulted the U.S. to the top of the medal stand at middle and long distances. It may seem a little odd, but to quote a popular phrase nowadays, “It is what it is.” Personally, I could not be happier for Bernard Lagat. When he made a move to the outside on the final straightaway in the 1,500 and launched a searing kick, I was rooting for him to reel in the runners ahead of him and bring it home. Having met him that one time, I felt a real, personal connection to this fine runner. That he was competing for the U.S. made it all the better.

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