Speed Kills! Or does it?

The sun pierces the cloudless blue Kenyan sky scorching the earth beneath. The pitter-patter of shoeless feet running over the dusty undulating terrain is swallowed by the chatter of monkeys objecting to this intrusion into their territory. “One day I’ll be the world champion!” declares Kipchirchir.

In 2007, at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, the Kenyan, true to his word, sweeps gold at the Men’s 1500m and 5000m races.

“And it’s double gold for Kenya . . . hang on a moment, yes his name is Bernard Kipchirchir Lagat, but he’s not representing Kenya, he’s representing the USA!”

Okay, I totally just made all that up, except for the double gold he wins while representing the USA at the World Championships in Osaka, Japan in 2007.

Lagat, amongst numerous other career accomplishments, won a bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, as well as a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, both in the 1500m race.

At the just concluded 2016 Rio Olympics, the double gold medal feat was repeated, this time by Mohamed Muktar Jama Farah, running not for Mogadishu, Somalia, the place of his birth, but for team Great Britain.

Now I’m no genius, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that two things unite our world in ways that few other things can (I’m sure there are probably more than two, but this isn’t the time to get sidetracked over minor details), music and sports.

Have you noticed that when it comes to music and sports we seem to be more tolerant and accepting of people who are different from us? Suddenly our moral quarterbacking takes a backseat to the thrill of engaging the rhythm of the music or cheering for the home team, regardless of who is playing for them.

Here’s a story I didn’t make up.

The Christmas Truce was a series of widespread but unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front (the main theater of war during WW1), around Christmas 1914. In the week leading up to the holiday, German and British soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. In areas, men from both sides ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol singing. Men played games of football with one another, creating one of the most memorable images of the truce.

In this season of vitriolic political miasma here in the USA, for approximately three blissful weeks we sidelined our fixation on ‘Muslim’ violence. We forgot about strained race relations, the patented comb-over masquerading as a full head of hair, and leaked emails exposing lies disguised as innocent ignorance and instead focused our collective attention on cheering for our country’s athletes — Black, White, Hispanic, Arab, Asian, and…shall I go on?

Now, depending on various disputatious factors, some of us root for one political candidate because he promises that he’s going to build a wall around our country to keep Muslims (read terrorists) out, at least for a short time while we try to figure out how to keep our borders safe.

Others of us root for another candidate because she promises to tax big business and the wealthy one-percenters more so that the rest of us plebs can live not as far below the poverty line as we do now (and because we don’t like comb-overs that look like ferrets nesting on our heads).

But did you notice that none of these issues seem to matter when it comes to the Olympics?

One US athlete, Jeremy Taiwo ran a gofundme online campaign to raise the funds he needed to prepare for the Olympics. He raised $54,095 of his stated $47,100 goal, supported by 354 people from varying religious, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. There were no questions asked about his religious or political leanings. People funded his dream because that’s what people do when they switch off prejudices and preconceptions that define other people by a single story.

Did you know Muslims were among America’s finest at the games?

I have bad news for those Americans who think every Muslim is a terrorist. Two women, Dalilah Muhammad and Nia Ali, whose back stories are amazing and who have Muslim backgrounds, represented the USA well at Rio 2016. Dalilah won the gold medal in the women’s 400m hurdles, while Nia won the silver medal in the women’s 100m hurdles.

I decided to do some research to prove that when we choose people over prejudice, we can live together harmoniously regardless of our religious, cultural, political, or social imperatives.

I stuck to track athletics since it provides some of the more exciting moments over a short time span. I also chose to focus on the top two medal-winning countries, the USA and Great Britain, as well as a few anomalies that stood out. Here’s what I found.

The United States of America was represented by 129 track and field athletes, 76 of whom were Black, Hispanic, Arab, or Asian American while the remaining 53 were White Americans. Of the 76, some were of African descent [i.e. naturalized Americans or first generation Americans] and of the 53 White Americans there were also a few first generation and naturalized Americans. In fact, according to Immigration Impact, 47 of the Olympians on the American team in Rio 2016 were not born in the United States.

Clearly then, when it comes to sports we’re able to transcend our vast and myriad differences to unite behind a common objective. Little wonder the USA won the most number of medals even though countries like China and India have significantly larger populations and consequently, larger pools of athletes to pull from. Interestingly enough, a cursory glance at their list of competing athletes reveals that apparently neither one of these countries had any foreign, non-native personnel listed as part of their Olympic squads.

There may be something for us to learn as a country from this.

Here are just a few of the track medals won by the USA (by non-White, Muslim, and naturalized Americans).

Now let’s look a little more closely at the British team who placed second overall in the medal standings. Considering that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (comprising England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), has a population of just over 65 million, placing second overall is an impressive resume.

But consider the following (keeping in mind that the United Kingdom is historically Caucasian).

Finally, let’s look at a few countries that haven’t historically walked away with a ton of athletic medals.

Italy

Italy had no male or female qualifiers in the 100M, and two of their qualifiers in the 200M men and women were Nigerian and Ghanian born respectively, while one of their two female qualifiers in the 400M was Nigerian born.

Japan

Japan placed second (Sliver medal) in the Men’s 4X100M, and their anchor leg was run by Jamaican born Asuka Cambridge.

Bahrain

Bahrain won two medals, both by Kenyan born women.

Qatar

Femi Ogunode (Nigerian Qatari) — [Men’s 100M and Men’s 200M]

No less than half of the Qatari squad of approximately 35 athletes (which included only two women), comprised foreign born athletes including just about all their track athletes and entire handball team.

  1. [Sidenote: I admit to a bias in seeking out mostly Nigerian born athletes representing other countries. Being patently aware of the unscrupulous and corrupt nature of the Nigerian Sports Commission, I wanted to get an idea of the number of Nigerian athletes not competing for Nigeria.]

Unlike those who level criticism at nations that recruit other nationals to represent them at the Olympics, I think it’s beautiful to watch because it makes our world a smaller place. It negates the single story about cultures and people that we know little about. It’s hard to fight to the death against someone you live and train with to accomplish a common goal.

Some have unequivocally declared that Qatar’s athletic ambitions are merely a chance to cash in, but to my thinking, it also represents an Olympic outlet for athletes who fail to make their home country’s national team. Sprinter Femi Ogunode was dropped from competing for Nigeria’s national team leading up to the 2008 Beijing Games, when he received an email from Qatar inviting him over.

In his own words, “I said yes but told them I had no funds to move. They told me to send my passport and I was given passage to Qatar. The rest as they say is history, as I became a Nigerian-Qatari.”

As our world increasingly diminishes in size due to collapsing immigration borders, we are forced to broaden our perspectives and learn about people we’ve hitherto dismissed as one thing or the other based on the single story that’s told about them.

How can we in the USA dismiss all Muslims as terrorists in light of those who represented us so ably at Rio 2016? The Arab world is becoming more open and accommodating to the West based on how homogeneous we all are in spite of our cultural and contextual differences.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter who sits in the White House, other than the fact that we all have personal preferences. Perhaps our country won’t go to the dogs or be overrun by terrorists if it’s not our candidate who wins. Instead of fighting over the things that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things we should be uniting over the things that do. Here’s one idea that I’m hooked on, especially since I’m a naturalized American myself.

As a backdrop, God had led the nation of Israel out of 400 years of captivity in Egypt. He gave them rules to follow for successful living as they tried to rebuild their culture after 400 years. Embedded among those rules were numerous instructions on social responsibility, one of which is the following:

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were once foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” ~ Leviticus 19:34

A similar instruction is repeated in another text:

“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were also foreigners in Egypt.” ~ Exodus 22:21

No matter what you believe. No matter what color your skin is. No matter where you went or go to school. This idea is demonstrably viable even if we look at Rio 2016 as a litmus test. Ultimately it’s righteousness that exalts a nation, and sin condemns all people according to Proverbs 13:34.

You see, maybe speed doesn’t always kill after all. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes if you’re an athlete, it helps you cross borders that were previously closed to you.

Just my dos centavos!

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