What Does It Take to Be American? Why Meb Keflezighi May Rekindle That Debate

After Keflezighi won the New York Marathon in 2009, his Americanism was called into question. In London, he hopes to triumph - and quell all that talk

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David J. Phillip / AP

Meb Keflezighi reacts after winning the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, in Houston.

In 2009 when Meb Keflezighi became the first American to win the New York City marathon in 27 years, some Americans downplayed the achievement.  Keflezighi, who also won an Olympic silver medal in the 2004 Athens marathon and will race for the U.S. again in London, was born in Eritrea and moved to the U.S. when he was 12. Thus Keflezighi, the thinking went, was not a “real” American.

A CNBC.com commentary, entitled “Marathon’s Headline Win Is Empty,” said that “the fact that [Keflezighi] is not American-born takes away from the magnitude of the achievement … Nothing against Keflezighi, but he’s like a ringer you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.” A comment on The New York Times’ website 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!” The Times ran a story spotlighting the debate, and comments on Letsrun.com, a running site, included: “Give us all a break. It’s just another African marathon winner” and “Meb is not an American – case closed.”

Except that’s not really true.  Keflezighi, 37,  was born in a Eritrean house without electricity, but his family fled that country’s war with Ethiopia when he was barely out of grammar school. He ran cross-country in grade school and high school in San Diego, and at UCLA.  “I ran my first mile here,” Keflezighi tells TIME. “I didn’t know the sport was an option in Eritrea.”

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In a follow-up story, CNBC.com apologized; the writer said he did not realize that Keflezighi is a product of the American running system.  Nonetheless, the aftermath of his historic New York win left Keflezighi sour. “I was disappointed,” he says. “I’m a first-generation immigrant, but you have to bear in mind – for somebody else who lives in America, where did their grandparents come from? It’s a melting pot. They might have immigrated from somewhere else, whether it’s the Netherlands, of Sweden, or wherever else.”In America, with freedom of speech, people are entitled to their opinion. I live in this great country that provided opportunities for myself and my family. I didn’t commit any crime. I actually did a great thing and was able to win a silver medal for my country, and win New York after 27 years. It’s been interesting.”

East African runners have so dominated distance races over the past few decades, it’s tempting to devalue Keflezighi’s accomplishment. It may feel like some sort of cheating to claim his win as an American victory.  And there’s no doubt race plays a role in this conversation. As we’ve seen with the rhetoric surrounding Barack Obama and his ancestry, if a name or face doesn’t sounds familiar to a segment of “real” – code word translation “white” – America, its very Americanism is called into question.

If Keflezighi, who became the oldest man to win the U.S. Olympic trials back in January, can somehow exceed his performance in Athens and win the London Olympic marathon, he hopes there won’t be as many questions about his American credentials  (wishful thinking, we know). The London course will be a challenge. “There are a lot of turns,” he says. “There will be a lot of acceleration and deceleration. It’s not a rhythm course. No one will cruise.”   Keflezighi is not the favorite – two-time defending world marathon champ Abel Kirui, of Kenya, is talking about breaking the Olympic record.  Still, the marathon winner is  notably difficult to predict: plenty can go wrong over 26.2 miles. “People have run faster than I have,” Keflezighi says. “But they have to do it on that day.”

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