Immigrant Runners Are Winning More Than Olympic Medals
The successes of foreign-born athletes like Mo Farah and Bernard Lagat offer a rejoinder to nationalistic sentiment in the U.S. and Britain.
On Saturday night, the British distance runner Mo Farah will try and become the first athlete to sweep the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races at consecutive Olympics since Finland’s Lasse Viren won both in 1972 and 1976.
Farah is tangled up with forces off the track too. He’s an immigrant who came to England from Somalia in order to escape conflict there at the age of eight. Time and again in recent years, the 33-year-old Farah, a devout Muslim, has prayed on the track and draped himself in the British flag after crossing the line for wins on the biggest stage, including at London’s 2012 games and then biennial World Championships in Russia and China in 2013 and 2015.
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. …
But the link between Farah and Brexit has been inescapable. This week, Twitter has lit up with people casting Farah’s 10,000-meter win as something beyond a track race, elevating it to a blow against the pro-Brexit forces. At the same time, as the The Huffington Post reported, some Brexit supporters have managed to draw the opposite conclusion, casting Great Britain’s overall medal haul thus far as proof of the country’s fitness to go it alone outside the European Union. …
“The success of these athletes should be read as a stinging rebuke of the sophomoric stereotypes and dime-store xenophobia that all too often clog up political discourse around immigration,” Jules Boykoff, a Pacific University professor who explores the intersection of sports and politics, told me an email. “Given the choice between knee-jerk Trumpism and the elegant excellence of these athletes,” he added, “I side with the athletes every time.”
What goes unmentioned is that Mo Farah has two immigrant brothers in Britain as well, Omar and Ahmed. I had never heard of them, but commenter Alastair J. Roberts points us toward coverage of them from the Daily Mail:
Mo Farah’s brother is released early from prison and could be deported from Britain after his part in knife raid
Ahmed Farah, 25, is facing being deported from Britain back to Somalia
Was jailed in 2010 for his part in a knife raid in Southall, west London in 2010
Reported that he is being held at Dungavel Detention Centre in Lanarkshire
Is now awaiting an immigration tribunal after an earlier case collapsed
Moved to Britain from Somalia 23 years ago with his older brother Mo
Mo Farah’s brother jailed again after he tried to break into an elderly couple’s home – his 20th offence in a string of convictions
Omar Farah admitted one count of attempted burglary with intent to steal
The younger brother of Olympic hero Mo left his fingerprints at the scene
Farah, 21, tried to break into a west London house in March 2013
He was jailed for 15 months at Kingston Crown Court by Judge Jones
Judge Jones described Farah’s 15 previous convictions as ‘unimpressive’
So, you win one, you lose two, I guess …