Still, Farah has faced claims that he’s not truly a British athlete throughout his career. In an ugly incident last year after Farah set the European record in the half-marathon, the man he took it from, Spain’s Fabian Roncero, dismissed the feat, reportedly claiming that an athlete “born in Somalia is Somali forever.” And this year’s Olympics are unfolding at a very different and even more fraught political moment than Farah’s earlier wins, arriving just weeks after anti-immigrant sentiment helped elicit Britain’s exit from the European Union. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump has made condemning immigrants a pillar of his campaign to capture the GOP nomination and the White House.
The games can be read as something of a physical rejoinder to Trump. “The performance of immigrants and children of immigrants in the Olympics really contradicts Trump in two ways,” Roger Pielke, Jr., a University of Colorado political scientist with an upcoming book on sports, told me in an email. “One is that America is already great (look at the medal count!) and the second is that immigration is a big factor in what makes America great in sports (and business, and culture).”
While Trump has vilified immigrants, distance running is thriving thanks to them. This weekend will be a moment to especially savor a pair of 41-year-old U.S. runners who should have no business still competing at the highest level. One of the men facing Farah in the 5,000-meter final on Saturday is the American distance great Bernard Lagat, a Kenyan native who became a U.S. citizen 12 years ago and set the American record at the distance in 2011. The field will also include Hassan Mead, a Somali-born American. Sunday’s marathon features American Meb Keflezighi, who came to the U.S. from Eritrea when he was 12 years old.
The U.S. success of foreign-born athletes is hardly unique to running. Nearly 50 athletes on the U.S. Olympic team weren’t born in the country they now compete for. Still, questions of distance runners’ nationality are especially fraught because it’s not a team sport where the influence of any one athlete is arguably smaller, and because East Africans have utterly dominated distance running for decades.
There are certainly debates to be had about nationality rules in sports, which can be gamed to acquire athletes even though the Olympic charter requires that individuals wait three years before competing for a new country. The Temple University law professor Peter Spiro, who is nonetheless against nationality rules, noted in a 2012 New York Times column that “the Gulf states have acquired African distance runners with promises of stipends for life. In preparation for the 2000 games, Qatar pretty much bought the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team.”
Lagat created a controversy when he competed for Kenya in 2004 at the Olympics without revealing that he had technically become an American citizen a few months earlier. Farah, for his part, is not an overtly political athlete, and his own reaction to Brexit was measured. He told The Sun this month: “If I’d have voted, I would have voted to be in the EU, but hopefully it will be better—whatever is best for the country, I guess ... We’ve just got to do the right thing now and make it work.”