What It Means To Be an American Athlete

The first American to win the NYC Marathon since 1982 is an Eritrean immigrant. Is the victory any less sweet?

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Last weekend, Meb Keflezighi became the first American in over 25 years to win the New York City Marathon. But because Keflezighi, a U.S. citizen, was born in Eritrea some commentators are holding back on celebration. CNBC Sports Business reporter Darren Rovell says "the fact that he's not American-born takes away from the magnitude of the achievement the headline implies." Is this fair? Many pundits think not. Fed up with debates about who really belongs in American society from, these writers say enough's enough. Meb Keflezighi is American, they proclaim, in tones ranging from the satirical to the inspired.

  • Where's Orly Tait on This One?  At The Guardian, Mike Tomasky deadpans befuddlement at the runner's detractors. But he thinks he knows what this is really about. "Huh. I wonder what it could be about Keflezighi that could make some folks feel he's not American enough. And nah, there's no racial element in the opposition to Obama. How dare you even think it, you reverse-racist, bolshevistic lackey."
  • Sorry, But Nationality Counts  At CNBC, Darren Rovell says Keflezighi is "like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league." The Huffington Post's Andy Borowitz parodies Rovell. If he were writing the headlines, Borowitz says they would look something like this: "Fox News Reports: American Wins NY Marathon, Kenyan Wins US Presidency."
  • This Debate Is Fueled By Race  At The New York Times, Gina Kolata finds that the sports world is full of racially based assumptions about athletic ability. "The success of distance runners from Kenya and Ethiopia fostered a lore of East Africans as genetically gifted, unbeatable, dominant because of their biology," she writes. "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."
  • This Is About the American Dream  At Tennessee's Chattanoogan, Roy Exum says Keflezighi's is a story of immigrant success. Let's not forget: "Meb learned to run when Ethiopian soldiers would pounce on his village, grabbing any child over 10 to help them shoot and kill the others," he writes. "It is the American dream. It still lives. And even today you can do anything you want to do. So, one more time, please say “Kef-lez-ghee” because, yes, it is an American name. You better believe it is."
  • Meb Has Something In Common With Caster Semenya  At Gawker, Foster Kramer jokes that Meb must have a hidden identity, satirizing accusations that female South African runner Caster Semenya was a man. "Did we mention he's an American! He is? Yes! He is. Most of the time runners who win the NYC marathons are from places like Ethiopia, where the female winner hails from. So basically they're just cheetahs in people's bodies. And this guy's from San Diego, so if he has anything in common with Caster Semenya he/she's a cougar in a people body." 
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.