Joseph Chirlee is an American citizen and a private in the United States Army stationed in Colorado. He is also a world-class marathoner with a shot at qualifying for the 2012 Summer Olympics. He had hoped to run in the national cross-country championships Saturday in San Diego.
But Chirlee, who emigrated from Kenya five years ago, will not be permitted to race, not even in the armed forces division, in which military personnel traditionally compete for their own championship within the national race. He is barred because he has been a United States citizen for less than two years, and that has entangled him in a new international eligibility rule that USA Track and Field, which oversees the race, has chosen to enforce.
“I came to America because I was told it was about equality for all,” said Chirlee, 30, who became a citizen in June. “But any average person I pass on the street can run in Saturday’s race, and I can’t. I took an oath as a soldier to serve and defend the country, but I can’t run in the country’s national championship? I don’t understand how that is fair or equal treatment.”
Chirlee’s coach, Lisa Rainsberger, a three-time United States Olympic team alternate and the last American woman to win the Boston Marathon, criticized USA Track and Field’s policy-making.
“He’s caught in a doughnut hole of a rule that our track and field leaders did not have to apply to American athletes,” Rainsberger said. “We understand Joseph can’t compete internationally for two years, but doesn’t he have any rights to run in elite American races before then? He can take a bullet for us someday in Afghanistan, but he can’t run with his American contemporaries? What purpose does that serve?”
USA Track and Field officials insist that their rule is not discriminatory and that it is not directed at Chirlee or several other athletes who are in his situation.
“We have an obligation to make sure competitive opportunities to represent the U.S. internationally go to individuals who are eligible to do so,” said Jill Geer, the chief public affairs officer for the organization.
Chirlee must be kept out of Saturday’s field, including the armed forces subdivision, Geer said, because he could affect the outcome of the overall race. Geer said that based on race tactics — if, for example, Chirlee set an unusually fast early pace — he could cause other runners in the field to try to match his pace, which could negatively influence their strategy or performance, altering the tenor of the race. There is also the matter of prize money, which is awarded only to eligible competitors.
The men’s and women’s winners Saturday will each receive $2,000, and six men and women will qualify to represent the United States in the world cross-country championships next month in Spain.
“Is the rule perfect? No,” said Geer, who added that USA Track and Field officials, acting on Chirlee’s behalf, tried unsuccessfully to get the International Association of Athletics Federations, the sport’s global governing body, to reassess Chirlee’s eligibility.
“We understand that Mr. Chirlee has done no wrong,” Geer said. “We will continue to look at our rules. But this is a rule that applies to every track and field event, not just distance runners. There are a lot of ramifications that have to be considered, from event to event.”
The new international rule, imposed by the I.A.A.F., was meant to inhibit athletes who jump from country to country for better competitive opportunities or because they are paid to do so. Until last year, the I.A.A.F. required any athlete who had competed internationally and then changed citizenship to wait three years before competing for his new country. Athletes who had never competed internationally were exempt and could change citizenship and be immediately eligible internationally.
Chirlee never competed for Kenya, or any other country, and applied to become a United States citizen late in 2009, expecting to be able to run for the United States once his citizenship was granted. He also joined the Army last March and went through basic training at Fort Benning, Ga.
But in April, the I.A.A.F. revised the rule, changing it to require any athlete switching citizenship to be a citizen of the new country for two years before competing in an international competition.
Since the mid-1980s, USA Track and Field has adopted I.A.A.F. eligibility rules as its own, Geer said. So when the international rule changed in April, two months before Chirlee became a citizen, in effect so did the USA Track and Field rule.
“I accepted the two-year wait to represent the country,” Chirlee said. “But I was confused why it applied to races on home soil. I just wanted to be treated like any other U.S. citizen. I went to a race in Connecticut, and they told me I shouldn’t be there. I told them I had worked hard for the race and that in America with hard work you can accomplish anything. So I ran anyway.”
Rainsberger worries that Chirlee is being deprived of a valuable opportunity to compete against American runners he will attempt to defeat for one of three Olympic team spots at the Olympic marathon trials on Jan. 14, 2012. USA Track and Field has said Chirlee will be permitted to compete in the Olympic trials even though he will not have been a citizen for two years because he would be internationally eligible by the London Olympics in July 2012.
“But in the meantime he’s not getting to test himself against his American rivals,” said Rainsberger, who noted that Chirlee did not run in the national half-marathon championships Jan. 29, an event contested on the course where the Olympic trials will be held.
“There’s a lot of knowledge and intuition gained by running side by side with your competitors for 26 miles,” she said. “Joseph is missing all that.”
Chirlee was one of six runners selected to run for the Army on Saturday. Liam Collins, the Army coach, twice petitioned USA Track and Field last month to allow Chirlee to compete. Each petition was denied.
Geer said she believed Chirlee would have “hundreds of quality competitive opportunities” throughout the year to get ready for the Olympic trials. And Chirlee, whose fastest marathon is 2 hours 12 minutes — or about a minute behind the third-place American Olympic qualifying time four years ago — is expected to run in April’s Boston Marathon, an event not under the purview of USA Track and Field.
Chirlee, who originally settled in Georgia and attended Chattahoochee Technical College in Marietta, has a wife and two small children in Kenya. He said he was working with immigration services to have his family join him in Colorado Springs, where he has been assigned to the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, allowing him to train for the Olympics.
“We all know if we don’t make the Olympics, we go back to regular Army duties,” said Chirlee, who said he received an Army stipend of $1,600 a month. “I know they could call me any time. I am ready. I will defend the country if asked.”
Rainsberger said she had worked with three runners dropped from the Army athlete program who served in Iraq and in Kuwait.
“Joseph runs 100 miles a week,” Rainsberger said. “He’s working hard on his window of opportunity.”
On Wednesday morning, as he prepared for another workout, Chirlee said he once considered immigrating to a European country.
“But I liked the American way where everybody is given the same chance,” he said. “Now I feel like a half citizen. I didn’t think there were half citizens.”