If the events of the past few weeks are anything to go by, the remarkable showing by American distance runners at last summer’s Olympics was no fluke. On Sunday, Shalane Flanagan took control over the final three miles of the New York City Marathon to become the first American woman to win since Miki Gorman in 1977. Last month, Galen Rupp won the Chicago Marathon, while, in the same race, his Oregon Project teammate Jordan Hasay notched the second fastest time ever run by an American woman.
Rupp's win in Chicago had some historical significance as well. The last U.S. man to break the tape in Grant Park was Khalid Khannouchi in 2002. However, unlike Rupp, who grew up in Oregon, Khannouchi was born in Morocco and immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s, officially becoming a citizen in 2000. As I’ve noted elsewhere, LetsRun.com deemed this distinction significant enough to herald Rupp’s victory with the headline: “American Galen Rupp Wins 2017 Chicago Marathon—First American-Born Winner in 35 Years.”
Rather than leaving it at that, the website took it a step further in its post-race analysis by positing that Rupp’s victory could also be viewed as a triumph in an unofficial distance-running battle of the continents, pitting African runners against, well, everyone else:
While Khalid Khannouchi and Meb Keflezighi have delivered plenty of incredible performances for the U.S., a win of this magnitude by a non-African-born American has been a long time coming, and it’s never happened during the current era of Kenyan/Ethiopian dominance. Rupp’s win wasn’t just big for the U.S.; it was big for the rest of the world, as well. It had been almost nine years since a man born outside of Africa had won a World Marathon Major (Marilson Gomes dos Santos in New York in 2008). Rupp’s win today was a breakthrough, but it remains to be seen whether he is a generational talent or if his win can open the doors for other non-Africans to contend on the sport’s biggest stages.
On the one hand, this can be read as an innocuous acknowledgement of (East) African dominance in distance running; for a stark example of the latter, check out this comprehensive list of the fastest marathons ever run. More problematically, one could argue that creating an African-born vs. non-African-born binary imposes racial categories, and, needless to say, the historical precedents here are not good. To put matters in these terms also addresses distance running’s perpetual elephant in the room: whether or not, and to what degree, race and/or ethnicity signifies a “natural” competitive advantage.
No wonder, then, that some members of the running community were critical of LetsRun’s headline:
It’s certainly not the first time the issue has come up.
When Meb Keflezighi won the New York City Marathon in 2009, he was the first American man to accomplish the feat since 1982. Meb, however, was born in what is now Eritrea and came to the United States as a 12-year-old—a fact that led some to downplay the significance of his NYC win. Sports reporter Darren Rovell was called out at the time for equating Keflezighi with the “ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.” Rovell subsequently apologized, noting that, among other things, he “didn’t account for the fact that virtually all of Keflezighi’s running experience came as a U.S. citizen.” (Yesterday, Breitbart.com published a story about Shalane Flanagan’s NYC win–subtitle: “Shalene [sic] Flanagan made American long-distance runners great again on Sunday”—which erroneously claimed she was the first American to win the race since Salazar in ’82.)
More recently, British national Mo Farah, who was born in Somalia but moved to London as a child, has had an on-and-off feud with fellow British distance runner Andy Vernon since the 2014 European Championships. At that meet, after Farah and Vernon took gold and silver, respectively, in the men’s 10,000 meters, Vernon facetiously intimated that he was the real European champion. Farah was not amused. (Part of the fallout from this was a rather embarrassing Twitter spat between two grown men.) To make matters worse, when Farah set the European record in the half marathon in 2015, the erstwhile record holder, Fabian Roncero of Spain, protested that Farah had really set the record for Somalia.
Regardless of whether it’s invoked in blithe jesting or an ostensibly sincere effort to gauge the significance of an athletic achievement, the notion that certain citizens might somehow be more European (or American) than others is always troubling. For one thing, who has the authority to arbitrate that question?
Let’s hope it’s not Fabian Roncero.
“For me, an athlete who was born in Kenya is Kenyan, and one born in Somalia is Somali forever,” Roncero said in response to Farah’s half marathon record. While there is much to object to in the idea that your birth nation defines your destiny—for what it’s worth, Frank Shorter, the last American man to win gold in the Olympic marathon, was born in Germany, while Miki Gorman was born in China to Japanese parents—what’s striking from a U.S. perspective is how this goes against one of the core beliefs this country has about itself: In this fair land, you can become anything you want to become. At least by the lofty standard of this idealized national self-narrative, fretting over whether a U.S. athlete was actually born here seems fundamentally un-American.
My suspicion is that Roncero doesn’t really care that Mo Farah wasn’t born in Europe so much as that he was born in a part of the world that made him the winner of an alleged genetic lottery. I think that’s also what underlies the whole American-born vs. African-born “debate.” (Not to mention that these geographical areas each encompass a wide variety of ethnicities.) At present, there is no evidence of a single genetic factor conferring distance-running talent, and the prevailing wisdom seems to be that physiological traits are only one part of the puzzle of why certain Kenyan and Ethiopian runners are so good. (For more on this, see chapter 12 of David Epstein’s excellent book The Sports Gene.)
It’s also worth keeping in mind that someone like Roncero, whose half marathon PR is 59:52, clearly won the genetic lottery as well. So did Galen Rupp. We would never think of trying to categorize these athletes on the basis of whatever physical traits make them well suited to excel in endurance events. (Can you imagine framing a competition along the lines of, say, ectomorphs vs. mesomorphs?) By dwelling on an athlete’s country of birth, what we’re doing here is not so different. This is not a path we want to go down.