American Citizen, Soldier, But Haron Lagat Can’t Compete For The U.S.

On Saturday, Haron Lagat watched from his home in Colorado Springs as his teammates Paul Chelimo and Shadrack Kipchirchir finished first and second in the 3000m at the 2018 U.S. Indoor Championships. Their performances meant that the two qualified to represent the United States at the 2018 World Indoor Championships. Like Lagat, Chelimo and Kipchirchir are members of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program and are stationed in Fort Carson, Colorado. 

But unlike his two teammates, Lagat is not eligible to represent the United States in international competition. 

“It was great seeing my teammates make the team,” Lagat said of Chelimo and Kipchirchir’s performances. “But bitter at same time I wouldn't be going to world half.”

The story of why he can't compete for his country stretches back 14 months, involves two governing bodies, an unyielding new rule, and an elite runner who desperately wants to compete for the country where he has lived since 2004.

Two weeks ago, USA Track and Field announced the American field for the 2018 World Half Marathon Championships. It was standard release mostly made up of names, hometowns, and some notable performances. The men’s roster included five men: Sam Chelanga, Diego Estrada, Leonard Korir, Bernard Lagat, and Jared Ward. 

Missing from the list was Haron Lagat.

The 34-year-old running journeyman and member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program ran the race of his life at January’s Houston Half Marathon. His time of 1:01:01 was fast enough to qualify him for the World Half Marathon Championships that take place in March 25 in Valencia, Spain. But Lagat was not named to the team. 

His exclusion is the result of a saga that dates back to December of 2016 as Lagat has been caught in the web of the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) freeze on transfer of allegiance — the term used to describe athletes who switch the country the represent in international competition. The moratorium has left Lagat, who was born in Kenya but came to the United States 14 years ago, with no country for which to compete. As the governing body has held the line on the policy for over a year, Lagat is sidelined during his first opportunity to race in a global championship of the sport. 

“We all know the U.S. distance running is going to the next level,” Lagat said. “To get an opportunity like that, you never know when you’re going to get the next one. This is the best one.”

Lagat’s relationship with the United States dates back to 2004. He grew up in Moiben, Kenya — 26 miles north of Eldoret. At the age of 19, he came to the United States to attend Texas Tech. He ran for the Red Raiders until he graduated in 2006 and stayed in Lubbock to coach with the team, continuing to train, showing particular promise in the steeplechase. He paced races to help pay his bills — sometimes up to 25 races a year. His ability in the steeplechase made him in particular demand as he rabbited Diamond League races all over the world. In 2015, his visa expired and he decided to enlist in the Army. 

In the summer of 2016 he attended boot camp. When he finally earned his citizenship he was at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. After 12 years, Lagat was officially an American.  

“I cried pretty hard,” Lagat said. “I said, ‘Thank God this is over.’”

On December 13 of that year, Lagat sent in his paperwork to USATF to formally change his allegiance from Kenya to the United States. He didn’t think there would be any problem. He’d never represented Kenya in international competition, he’d lived in the United States for 12 years, and he was an American citizen. 

But before USATF turned in his application to get final approval from the IAAF, the sport’s governing body instituted a freeze on all transfers of allegiance. 

The topic of athletes changing the country they represent has been an issue of growing concern in the running world. It’s particularly controversial with the rise of Middle Eastern countries offering cash to athletes from African nations to switch citizenship. 

When the IAAF announced that they were halting any transfers, Hamad Kalkaba Malboum, a member of the IAAF Council, said, “The present situation is wrong. What we have is a wholesale market for African talent open to the highest bidder. Our present rules are being manipulated to the detriment of athletics’ credibility. Lots of the individual athletes concerned, many of whom are transferred at a young age, do not understand that they are forfeiting their nationality.” 

None of this related to Lagat, but the freeze was universal and immediate, carving out exemptions only for 16 athletes who were deemed in the process of completing their application.  

Since there was no timeline for a resolution, Lagat was without a country. His citizenship made him eligible to run in U.S. championship events, but his status with the IAAF made him ineligible to represent the United States in international championship events. 

This issue came to a head at last summer’s 2017 U.S. Outdoor Championships. By that point Lagat had moved to Colorado Springs and joined the World Class Athlete Program. Lagat intended to race in the steeplechase at the U.S. championships, but was blocked from competing because he wouldn’t be eligible to run for the U.S. at the world championships if he made the team. 

The week of the meet, lawyers got involved and Lagat was permitted to race with the understanding that the IAAF rules meant even if he finished in the top three he could not race at the world championships. Lagat finished fifth, averting a messy dispute involving two governing bodies, but ultimately leaving the issue unresolved. 

Any hope that the issue would be cleared up by the next time Lagat tried to make a U.S. team went away when the IAAF announced in November that the freeze would be extended. Less than two months later, Lagat ran 1:01:01 in the Houston Half Marathon. Lagat’s time all but guaranteed that he would have one of the fastest American marks of the year (USATF uses a combination of race winners at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships, and the U.S. 20K Championships and the fastest marks to determine the five-person half marathon team). 

Unlike the discussions over the summer before the U.S. championships, this was not a theoretical berth in a world championships. If not for freeze, Lagat would be on the team for the World Half Marathon Championships. 

Before the team was announced, Scott Simmons — Lagat’s coach with the World Class Athlete Program — reached out to USATF and IAAF trying to see if Lagat could compete. 

“He meets all the requirements,” Simmons said. “He never competed for another country. He lived in this country from 15 years, he’s a U.S. citizen. He meets all the requirements for a transfer of allegiance.”  

Lagat’s attempt to get on the U.S. team in 2018 led to a revisitation of how the case was originally handled at the end of 2016. Namely, why did the USATF wait until February to turn in the Lagat’s application if he emailed all the required documents in December? 

Jill Geer, USATF’s chief marketing officer, says that USATF had no advanced notice that the IAAF was planning on adopting a transfer freeze policy. Prior to the freeze, Geer said USATF periodically sent transfer of allegiance requests to the IAAF throughout the year. This was done so USATF could submit multiple athlete requests at one time and to allow for processing time prior to global championships. 

“USATF had not yet processed or forwarded Mr. Lagat’s request to the IAAF as of that date (February 6, 2017)," Geer said. "We therefore petitioned the IAAF to allow Mr. Lagat’s transfer of allegiance and advocated on his behalf, given that his application was in process with USATF at the time of the IAAF freeze.”

Simmons tried to get clarity as to how USATF was framing their appeal to the IAAF. 

“Are they arguing based on the merits for his transfer of allegiance or are they arguing that, look we are the federation, we screwed up?" he wondered. "We had his documentation, he did initiate it. Going through the USATF is part of that process, he was in process. That really is what it comes down to.”

But the IAAF did not interpret “in process” in the same manner. Since Lagat’s application did not arrive before the announcement of the freeze on February 6, it was not considered and remains stuck in the pipeline. 

“Their (USATF’s) argument should be that yes he was in process," Simmons said. "They don’t even have to admit fault. He submitted all his paperwork in December we just didn’t get it to you. That’s the beginning of the process. He was in process like the other (16) athletes."

The working group the IAAF assigned to the issue plans to update the IAAF Council in March about their recommendations. That’s no consolation to Lagat, who looks poised to miss out on his opportunity to represent the United States. 

“When they announced the team, he didn’t take it very well at all obviously," Simmons said. "He was at the workout and was completely demoralized. I said, 'Look, we aren’t going to stop fighting. We will pursue every avenue that we can because this is the right thing and USATF dropped the ball.'"

But there has been no indication that Lagat will be allowed to compete. In an email earlier this month, IAAF CEO Olivier Gers asked Simmons for feedback about the transfer of allegiance process. Lagat has received support from Bernard Lagat, who, like Haron, transferred allegiance from Kenya to United States in 2005. Bernard Lagat sits on the USATF’s Athlete Advisory Committee and has spoken with Stephanie Hightower, the U.S. representative on the IAAF about Haron’s case. So far, it hasn’t yielded a change in the decision. 

As a veteran of the sport, Haron Lagat understands the intentions behind the freeze. 

“In Kenya, particularly, primary schools are being ransacked by lower-level agents," he said. "Coaches and even family members in recruiting young potential talent to change their names in a week and attain certain country's citizenship in less than a month in exchange for a little money. There are no rules to protect these athletes as some are thrown away after a few years if they didn’t do well athletically and they end up back to their original country. We are all looking for better lives, but it should be done in legal, ethical, and right ways and within logical rules. These athletes need protections.

“That being said, it should not hurt the athletes, the federations and the individuals who are doing it the right way. Running is a very short career and one year being taken away hurts the athlete financially. There are lots of ways to prove a legit transfer allegiance.”

Lagat has his eyes on the marathon in the future, and is hoping that the issue won’t drag on for much longer. The 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials are less than two years away and he’s determined to represent the United States. For now, he will keep racing. He’s running the Gasparilla Half Marathon in Tampa on Sunday. The next morning he will head to Nebraska where he will train 300 soldiers in the National Guard on proper running mechanics. 

“This has been a very trying process," Lagat said, "but I have tried to stay positive. I have been hoping IAAF will come to (the) light and realize that they are hurting athletes like me who are trying to do it the right way.” 

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