Critics of Keflezighi uninformed, ignornant

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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Apparently some people were absent from school when the teacher covered the material about this being a nation of immigrants - America as the world's melting pot - a new, welcoming society envisioned by the founding fathers.

Why else would those folks, from facts-challenged CNBC sports business commentator Darren Rovell to the anonymous chuckleheads ranting on the Internet, argue against Meb Keflezighi's New York City Marathon victory on Sunday being described as the event's first by an American since 1982?

Rovell characterized Keflezighi as "a ringer who you hire to work a couple of hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league," and others harangued that the Eritrea-born Keflezighi, for 22 years a U.S. resident and for 11 years a naturalized citizen, was "just another African marathon winner."

Rovell subsequently apologized - sort of - by saying that he was not aware than Keflezighi had come to America as a child and therefore had "moved to the United States in time to develop [his running talent] at every level in America."

All Rovell had to do was Google Keflezighi to learn that the 2004 Olympic silver medalist, for years a prominent presence in U.S. distance running, had grown up in San Diego and graduated from UCLA. But where Rovell and the Web pontificators really proved themselves to be idiots was in declaring that a person had to be born in America to qualify as an American.

Just for starters, 2008 presidential candidate John McCain was born in the Panama Canal zone (where his father was serving in the Navy at the time), and such famous Americans as Alexander Hamilton and Albert Einstein also were immigrants. But let's stick just to sports figures.

When the 34-year-old Keflezighi - it's pronounced Kuh-FLEZ-ghee, for the non-xenophobic out there who can appreciate the power of American diversity - won on Sunday (proudly wearing a "USA" singlet), he ended 26 years of New York Marathon dominance by athletes hailing from such distance-running hotbeds as Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia and Italy.

The last American, man or woman, to win New York was Alberto Salazar, who had been a track star at the University of Oregon. But was born in Cuba. (His parents defected when he was 2). Keflezighi's second-place finish at the 2004 Athens Games, in fact, made him the first American man to win an Olympic marathoning medal since a 1976 silver by Frank Shorter, who was raised in upstate New York, graduated from Yale and established a U.S. distance-running mecca in Colorado. Shorter was born in Munich, Germany. (His father was an doctor serving in the Army.)

Two of the most dominant female tennis players in recent history, both whom played the latter stages of their careers representing the United States as naturalized citizens, also were born abroad: Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova.

Seles was born in the former Yugoslavia (though she grew up in a Florida tennis academy) and Navratilova was born in the former Czechoslovakia, defected and became thoroughly American - she's a big Dallas Cowboys fan - in her tastes, expressions and, certainly, use of freedom of speech. "I had to take a test," she once told a group of reporters who wanted to know if she considered herself an American. "And all you guys had to do was get born here."

"What constitutes an American?" Franklin Delano Roosevelt's secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes, asked in a famous 1941 speech. "Not color nor race nor religion. Nor the pedigree of his family nor the place of his birth....An American is one in whose heart is engraved the immortal second sentence of the Declaration of Independence" - the line about holding truths to be self-evident that all men created equal and entitled to the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In 1998 Edward Hudgins, director of studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, wrote a July 4 essay in which he declared an American to be, among other things, "anyone who understands that achieving the best in life requires risks. Immigrants have no assurance of success in a new land with different habits, instutitions and language....But they, like all Americans, understand that the timid achieve nothing and forgo even that which sustains us through the worst of times: hope."

Keflezighi was a refugee, with his family, of Eritrea's bloody 30-year civil war to win independence from Ethiopia and knows something about risks and being sustained by hope. "What does it mean to be an American?" Keflezighi said recently in response to a question. "In America, people come from different backgrounds. I was born in Eritrea; I am proud of my heritage. I was raised here; I am proud I'm American. I was here in sixth grade. I started running in America."

Even if he started running on the Moon, Keflezighi is a U.S. citizen whose marathon victory Sunday did more for the USA's good name than those sulfurous Internet bigots and a CNBC "reporter" who couldn't get his facts, his grammar - it should have been "a ringer whom you hire..." - or his American values right.