Triumph of the Immigrant American Spirit: Meb Keflezighi and the Boston Marathon

(By Juan Cole)

Yesterday Boston responded with its vigorous spirit of community and transcendence to the cowardly terrorism that marred the Boston Marathon in 2013, coming out in record numbers for the 2014 event. The fastest man in the competition is being touted as the first American male to win since 1983. But of course Meb Keflezighi is a naturalized American (like some 10 percent of the current US population), an immigrant from Eritrea.

The discourse on the American far right against immigrants, which has infected even some mainstream politicians, depicts them as dangerous, as importers of alien values, as job-thieves. In fact, immigrants are remarkably well-behaved, valuing their achievement in reaching the United States, with all of its opportunities, and not wanting to ruin it by a run-in with the law. They often do bring distinctive religious or cultural beliefs, but these enrich the American fabric, just as the Puritans, Irish Catholics, Eastern European Jews, Lebanese and Syrian Muslims, and Greek and Syrian Eastern Orthodox had done over the past two centuries. And they for the most part do jobs that other Americans won’t or can’t do, rather than taking away jobs from anyone.

The Tsarnaev brothers, authors of the terror a year ago, seemed to confirm the worst prejudices of the anti-immigrant crowd. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev turned violent, killing three and injuring 264 before killing a further police officer. Tamerlan was killed in a shootout, and Dzhokhar was captured after being badly wounded. The dark political history of modern Chechnya seems to have scarred them; it strove for independence from Russia before being brutally crushed by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, and then experienced a Muslim extremist movement early in the last decade that was smashed by Vladimir Putin. They were brought up in peaceful Kyrghyzstan in exile, but were apparently haunted by the horrors of Chechnya’s fate, and attracted by Chechnya nationalism in, at one time or another, both its secular and radical Muslim guises. Dzhokhar became a naturalized American.

But in fact both young men showed promise and initiative. Tamerlan had real talent as a boxer. Dzhokhar got into college. They could have built productive lives in their new homeland. That they did not had nothing to do with their being immigrants or aliens. They made personal choices, to bring the terror Chechnya had experienced into the US. A person’s violence tells you that the person has or has developed a violent character. That cannot be read off from background. Some white, native-born Americans turn violent; some, like Timothy McVeigh, commit terrorism. So to do some Jewish-Americans. That is a disorder of their character, not a manifestation of their ethnic background. The few hundred Chechnyan-Americans have been perfectly peaceful citizens.

Keflezighi stands for everything that, in the end, the Tsarnaevs did not. But in fact his background and circumstances were not so different from theirs. He was arguably poorer and more disadvantaged than they growing up. Like Chechnya, Eritrea has had a troubled history during the past decades. It had been an Italian colony, like Libya (and likewise murderously repressed under Mussolini), but Italy lost it during WW II. It became part of Ethiopia in the early 1960s, but some Eritreans immediately launched a nationalist rebellion. (I lived in Asmara 1967-68 and saw the beginnings of the rebellion there with my own eyes). After decades of strife, Eritrea became independent in 1993. But in 1998-2000 Eritrea and Ethiopia fell into a war that left 70,000 dead. Eritrea is a country of 6 million in the horn of Africa, likely about 60 percent Christian and 40 percent Muslim. As with some Chechnyan leaders, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki stands accused of backing terrorist groups– in his case, against Ethiopia. Although he is a Coptic Christian, he is accused of being involved in Somalia’s al-Shabab extremists.

Keflezighi’s autobiography makes clear that his family is Eritrean patriots who resent Ethiopian dominance. He could have nurtured a hatred in that regard. He did not. He went to UCLA, where he was an NCAA athlete, graduating in 1998. He showed character. When he ran yesterday, he had the names of the three who were killed the year before written in marker on his bib. He stood for America, for unity, for overcoming adversity without violence.

Keflezighi’s victory in the competition and in his magnificent spirit, is a vindication of the 30 million living Americans who were born abroad. Whether Buddhist or Hindu, Muslim or Christian, they bring us their talents, their indomitable will, their magnificent contributions, their humane values. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, Americans ought to be judged not by their ethnicity but by the content of their character. Keflezighi and his birth-country had suffered tremendously. But he overcame that legacy to embrace America with love. We love him right back. Today, he is the face of Boston resurgent.

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CBS Boston: “American Meb Keflezighi Wins Boston Marathon”

5 Responses

  1. This essay is concise and to the point and much needed.
    However, I think it marred by your choosing to label the Marathon bombing as cowardly. I recall no use of that word in this blog in referencing U.S. drone strikes, which often are targeted at civilian locales.
    Indeed, launching destruction from thousands of miles away, or even thousands of feet, in comparison to an up close placing of destruction, seems to blur any judgment of cowardice. Perhaps you might explain the difference you see?

  2. In 2009, after Keflezighi won the New York City marathon, I got into a lively discussion with several people who claimed being a naturalized citizen was all that was needed for him to be considered an elite American long distance runner.

    I maintained that Keflezighi was originally from East Africa and runners from that small part of Africa have completely dominated long distance running for over three decades. Keflezighi is from Eritrea, but most come from either Kenya or Ethiopia. As a distance runner, I still considered him to be an East African.

    No knows why these runners are the best in the world–men and women. Scientists can not find the reason even though everything from their diet to the topography has been studied. However, Kezlefighi is somewhat different since he came to this country when he was still a child of 12-13.

    • Asmara is a mile and a half up and you have to have big lungs; I kept fainting when I first arrived.

  3. The “big lung” theory of children in northeast Africa running back and forth to school still doesn’t explain why so many elite long distance runners come from that small part of Africa.

    Their diets have even been studied. Researchers found that Kenyan runners eat a diet rich in short chained carbohydrates as opposed to the long chain carbo meals of long distance runners in other parts of the world.

    This is one of the greatest mystery in athletics. Kenyan and Ethiopian women are even more dominant than the men.
    However, Keflezighi left Eritrea when he was very young, so diet and big lungs from the altitude don’t play a part with him.

    • I don’t buy the diet explanation, there’s obviously a lot of tricks with elite sports nutrition and a major challenge for these athletes is keeping an appropriate weight, but I don’t see the Kenyans having some diet trick that none other has caught on to.

      David Epstein’s explanation seems the most credible to me. The Kenyan population that really dominates evolved at a low altitude but lives at a high altitude, so the key there isn’t big lungs but a lifetime of passive training by living at a high altitude. This isn’t a feature of all Kenyans but the Kalenjin tribe in particular.

      Another big factor is body type, east Africans are very spindly from being so close to the equator and needing to radiate heat. Thin legs make it easy to move the legs back and forth. I do a lot of running but my legs are quite thick with a lot of muscle, lots of strength but it’s a waste swinging them back and forth. They’ve also likely held their running advantage a little better genetics wise through persistence running.

      I don’t know how much the altitude stuff extends to Ethiopia or Eritria, even with elite athletics there’s going to be a range of factors, but he’s got the body type.

      One important thing to note is that Keflezighi’s performance isn’t actually that impressive, he was well off the US marathon record held by Ryan Hall, who is definitively not east African. It was also a pretty weak Boston field (the top elites went to London) and the top runners who did have a chance to catch him ran a bizarrely poorly paced race. Not to shortchange his ability, but he had a PB at an event with a weaker field that happened to struggle. As world class runners go he’s significant because he’s American, as an Ethiopian or Kenyan he’d be fairly anonymous. Not to shortchange his accomplishment, but he’s not of the same calibre as the world’s best marathoners. (his longevity is slightly impressive though)

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