Kenyan-born Runner Wins Race to Attain Israeli Citizenship

Lonah Chemtai is finally becoming an Israeli. This August she’ll be racing the marathon at the Rio Olympics.

Uri Talshir
Uri Talshir
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Lonah Chemtai.
Lonah Chemtai.Credit: Nir Keidar
Uri Talshir
Uri Talshir

Lonah Chemtai, the Kenyan-born marathon runner who married an Israeli and has been waging a bureaucratic battle to become an Israeli citizen, will finally get her wish Thursday after Interior Minister Arye Dery personally intervened in her case.

In the Tel Aviv Marathon late last month, Chemtai posted a time of 2:40:16, good enough to qualify for the Olympics with room to spare (a time below 2:45:00 is needed). The publicity meant many Israelis got to know her unusual love story.

“We reached a situation where Lonah would walk down the street and people would stop her and give her positive feedback and support: ‘Hey, you’re from the newspaper article, we’re for you,’” said her husband and coach, Dan Salpeter. He said he had no doubt the authorities would recognize their marriage.

“We’ve been through a lot these two weeks. It had an impact that it all happened here in Israel, in Tel Aviv – so many people witnessed her achievement and her story. We went through a process that every mixed couple goes through, for better or worse, but when it comes to fruition so suddenly it’s much more powerful,” Salpeter said.

“Lonah herself hasn’t digested it yet. She wants to see it happen and get the document in her hand, and then maybe she’ll grasp it. She’s always maintained her natural optimism, saying ‘Oh well, next time.’ She doesn’t let anything distract her.”

Salpeter said he didn’t think Chemtai realized the peace the ID would bring her.

“Then she’ll truly be able to fulfill herself, and the institutions here will finally recognize her as a local athlete and not see her as someone who’s a tourist here,” he said.

Salpeter, Chemtai and their son Roy. Credit: Nir Keidar

After obtaining her citizenship papers and approval from the country’s Olympic committee, Chemtai will become the 19th athlete to ensure a place in the Israeli delegation to Rio.

Of course, her naturalization will also affect her daily routine. In even the smallest local races, when she won she was denied a spot on the podium because she wasn’t Israeli. Now that’s different.

“It’s giving her enormous motivation. We’re aiming at the highest levels in the world, and it’s clear there’s still a long way to go. Still, when she has her own home and they recognize her at the practice grounds, that’s very important,” Salpeter said.

“Her result in Tel Aviv doesn’t reflect her real level of ability, in terms of both the race conditions in Tel Aviv and the way the race developed. In ideal marathon conditions, she has [a time] a few minutes lower in her legs, and I hope she’ll raise herself another half notch before Rio and do her very best on the big day there.”

On Thursday, Chemtai and Salpeter – possibly accompanied by their young son Roy – will go to the Interior Ministry office in Netanya to pick up her new ID card.

“I’m excited about the ceremony, happy and already awaiting the next challenges,” Salpeter said. “I’m looking forward to building her a multiyear plan instead of a multiday one. Then we’ll really be able to advance her career.”

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