There has been controversy as to the number of foreign born athletes who represent a country not native to theirs, most recently the four American Army WCAP runners who have qualified in track and field for the 2016 Rio Olympics. IAAF president and two-time gold medalist Sebastian Coe laments athletes who give up loyalty to their native country to compete for another. Others, on the internet and on anonymous message boards, call it opportunism or worse.
To date, six native African male distance runners have qualified for the Olympics, four of whom are in the Army WCAP program, a highly exclusive program that allows athletes to train and compete as their primary professional duty. Hillary Bor has qualified in the 3,000m steeplechase, Paul Chelimo in the 5,000m, and Shadrack Kipchirchir and Leonard Korir in 10,000 meters. All were born in Kenya and all became naturalized citizens after completing college in America or by serving in the Army.
Despite any perceived controversy, make no mistake: they are just as deserving as any other American or service member and should feel proud about the country and service they represent.
The presence of immigrants in the military has deep historical roots. Foreign born residents comprised 20% of the 1.5 million service members in the Union Army during the Civil War. As of 2008, approximately 5% of service members were foreign born. Immigration to the United States is motivated by a multitude of reasons, one of which is the opportunity to become an American citizen. Serving in the military provides an expedited route to doing so. Since September 2001, over 37,000 members of the U.S. armed forces have become naturalized citizens. The African born runners in the WCAP program used the skills they had and the opportunity provided to them to secure status as a legal citizen. That’s not a scam. That’s America.
Those who serve in the WCAP program certainly have different responsibilities than, say, an Army infantry officer, but they are the same in that they both have a mission. WCAP runners have to perform, and if they don’t, they suffer the consequences and are kicked off the team. Just because they aren’t placed in harm’s way doesn’t mean they aren’t serving their country. As a Naval Flight Officer, I never saw action. Few do. In the second Iraq War, only 15% of the U.S. military served in combat.
In the fight to win a war, the importance of logistics, administration, and support may not be as apparent, but they all serve a purpose. Just because you don’t sacrifice your life, doesn’t mean you don’t sacrifice. The military is predicated upon more than dying for one’s country or making another die for his. The Army created a program with the intent of fostering soldier-athletes who achieve national visibility, and that’s exactly what these athletes achieved. Mission Accomplished.
What is a “real” American, anyways? You ancestor may have been here for two centuries, but that is little different than if you became a citizen yesterday. And your ancestors likely suffered mistreatment for their foreign status. Some of the skepticism about these athletes reflects a reaction to their foreign sounding names and their supposedly “foreign” physical traits Given the recent attention given to the Black Lives Matter movement, the need for discretion in these instances is clear: being white does not make one inherently American, just as being black does not make one automatically foreign.
I am not only a former Naval Flight Officer, I am a current runner. I enjoy mentoring athletes as much as I do competing. We’re all fighting the same battle out there against time and distance. If I could say anything to the WCAP athletes who have qualified for Rio 2016, it’s this: I am proud. I am proud that you are part of the United States Military and am proud that you will be representing both the United States Army and the United States in the Olympics.