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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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July 8, 2008 11:32 AM

Nation jumping: Is it fair?

Posted by Ron Judd

The very completeness of it made it stand out.

The 1,500 meter final at the U.S. Track Trials in Eugene this weekend was won by a Kenyan immigrant, former Washington State University track star Bernard Lagat. Rounding out the top three Olympic spots were Leonel Manzano, two-time NCAA champion and an an immigrant from Mexico; and Lopez Lomong, who escaped the civil war in Sudan and in 2001 emigrated to the U.S., later becoming the 2007 collegiate champ at Northern Arizona.

All three immigrants, all competing for the U.S. in Beijing, while a field of "homegrown" athletes, if you will, will be left on the sidelines.

The inevitable question: Is it fair to U.S. native athletes? Doesn't this smack of Olympic officials recruiting foreign athletes just to win medals, at the expense of homegrown talent?

It's easy to wonder, but a look even an inch below the surface reveals the flawed premise of the question. It's pretty clear that none of these gifted athletes sought U.S. citizenship simply to run in a red, white and blue singlet. Each came to America for the same reasons our forebears did: For opportunity, freedom, and a way of life.

Lagat, a WSU student more than a decade ago, had lived for years in the U.S. His career was here. His training center and partners were here. A wife and family were here. He felt like an American. He applied for citizenship. Like any other track athlete, he paid a significant price to do so: A three-year limbo period in which he was not allowed to compete internationally.

Clearly, his citizenship application might have gotten a boost from someone in a high place: It was granted, in fact, before he expected in 2004, creating the unusual specter of his competing -- and winning a silver medal -- in the Athens Games for Kenya, when he was in fact already an American citizen. But Lagat sought no special favors in the process.

Manzano's family, according to a piece in the New York Times, emigrated from Mexico to Texas when he was only 4 years old. His father, Jesus, had crossed the border 16 times, trying to earn enough money to support his family. He became a legal citizen and moved his family here in 1987.

Lomong's journey here was even more perilous. He was one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," kidnapped at age 6 and thrust into a 10-year existence in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to the U.S. in 2001. A compelling account of his travails is described by Tom Farrey in ESPN The Magazine here.

Convenient opportunism? Please. To get cranked up about immigrants "taking" U.S. spots is to assume that U.S. track and Olympic officials are out recruiting athletes to pad their medal count. (I picture them accosting Manzano's father at the border, telling him he had to go back south -- unless his 4-year-old son happened to have a good finish kick in the 1,500 meters.) While they clearly welcome talent of this caliber on the Olympic Team -- who wouldn't? The last U.S. medal in this race was won by Jim Ryun in 1968 -- it's just as clear that they didn't go fishing for crossover stars.

Still, some carping persists, even among journalists. Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune, in a blog post last week, asserted that Lagat had conveniently switched nations because he was worried he wouldn't be good enough to make the 2008 Kenyan team. The claim not only isn't supported, it makes no sense -- Lagat was the fastest Kenyan runner at the time he made his application, and remains so today. (Further: If a runner was shopping for a home country purely to ensure a spot in the Olympics, wouldn't he be starting immigration procedures in, uh, someplace like Iceland?) Yet other voices have similarly whispered that the injection of foreign athletes into the U.S. Trials is somehow unfair.

Steve Kelley's Monday column made the opposite case -- that all three are "as American as barbecue," and should be embraced as competitors who won, fair and square.

I agree. If "homegrown" U.S. track athletes want a spot on the Olympic team, they can compete for one just like everyone else: Train harder, run faster, beat the best your nation has to offer -- regardless of the pure accidental nature of their place of birth. How would one of those native-born athletes feel claiming a spot on the Olympic team, knowing that a competitor from some exotic place like, oh, Arizona, where Lagat has long resided, had a faster time?

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome.

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Blogroll and links

www.olympic.org: The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information.
www.nbcolympics.com: Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog
www.usolympicteam.com: U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site.
www.aroundtherings.com: Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription).
www.wcsn.com: News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions.
www.beijing2008.com: Beijing Organizing Committee Web site.
www.vancouver2010.com: Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site.
www.london2012.com: London 2012 Summer Games site.
www.sochi2014.com: Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site.
www.chicago2016.org: Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.