Galen Rupp Wins the Chicago Marathon: How Let’sRun.com Politicized Race and Running

Galen Rupp
Galen Rupp wins the 2017 Chicago Marathon

When Galen Rupp won the Chicago Marathon on October 8, 2017, he ran a personal best of 2:09:20, edging out the 2016 champion, Abel Kirui, by 28 seconds.

Congratulations Galen Rupp! A three-time Olympian, Rupp won silver in the 10K at the London Olympics, and bronze in the marathon at the Rio Olympics.

But after the Chicago Marathon, the popular runner’s publication, Let’s Run, gave Rupp a new distinction in the article celebrating his victory – “1st American-Born Winner in 35 Years.” Let’s Run’s Facebook followers picked up on the politically nuanced headline and reacted not only to the inaccuracies, but the racial and gender overtones:

  • MDW: Khalid Khannouchi may not have been born in the US, but he was, when he won, and is still American. He won in 2000 and 2002. Don’t discredit his wins as an American
  • JP: Well said. The title sounds like a trump supporter.
  • MDW: No, just a typical Letsrun or FloTrack headline. Misleading.
  • SL: Not just misleading but incorrect. First American born MALE to win in 35 years.
  • MDW: Even better!
  • JP: “First American Born God Fearing White Male Winner of Chicago Marathon Crushes Darker Skinned Heathens from Other Side of Wall!” There. I fixed it.
  • MDW: Not funny.
  • JP: Lighten up. It’s the internet.

Lets Run Galen Rupp Headline

The last American to win the Chicago Marathon, as pointed out by MDW in the Facebook post, is Khalid Khannouchi, who in fact, has won the Chicago Marathon four times, twice in 1997 and 1999 as a Moroccan, and twice in 2000 and 2002 as an American. Khannouchi became a naturalized citizen of the United States on May 2, 2000.

Like my grandfather who became a naturalized citizen in the 1950s and my mother who became a naturalized citizen in the 1960s, Khannouchi is an American citizen. The Let’sRun.com headline for Rupp’s victory could have been “1st Male American Winner in 35 Years,” but the editors made a conscious decision to politicize their headline. In the article they provide further explanation of why they think this accomplishment is significant:

While Khalid Khannouchi and Meb Keflezighi have delivered plenty of incredible performances for the U.S., a win of this magnitude by a non-African-born American has been a long time coming, and it’s never happened during the current era of Kenyan/Ethiopian dominance. Rupp’s win wasn’t just big for the U.S.; it was big for the rest of the world, as well. It had been almost nine years since a man born outside of Africa had won a World Marathon Major (Marilson Gomes dos Santos in New York in 2008). Rupp’s win today was a breakthrough, but it remains to be seen whether he is a generational talent or if his win can open the doors for other non-Africans to contend on the sport’s biggest stages. If we had to choose right now, we’d lean toward the “generational talent” explanation.

Martin Fritz Huber, who writes on running in OusideonLine.com, wrote this counter-point article entitled “We Shouldn’t Care Where a Runner is Born.”

On the one hand, this can be read as an innocuous acknowledgement of (East) African dominance in distance running; for a stark example of the latter, check out this comprehensive list of the fastest marathons ever run. More problematically, one could argue that creating an African-born vs. non-African-born binary imposes racial categories, and, needless to say, the historical precedents here are not good. To put matters in these terms also addresses distance running’s perpetual elephant in the room: whether or not, and to what degree, race and/or ethnicity signifies a “natural” competitive advantage.

Khalid Khannouchi

To me, this controversy smacks of the birther debate during Barak Obama’s tenure as president, when loud voices continued (continue) to claim that Obama was not born in the United States. The whole point about sports is that the best person wins, and the whole point about the American Dream, is that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” through hard work and lack of barriers.

My grandfather emigrated from Japan to the United States in 1903, and helped build a strong community in Japan Town in San Francisco through his work as an elder in the Japanese Church of Christ and executive director of the Japanese YMCA. While he had to wait until the 1950s to become a naturalized American citizen, he helped countless others become solid American citizens. He was as American as they come, and I would hate to see an asterisk indicating that his contributions were less so because he was not born in the United States.

He, as much as Khannouchi, has made America great.