Kenyan-born marathon winner in race against time to represent Israel at Rio Olympics

Published March 12th, 2016 - 11:07 GMT
Lonah Chemtai and her husband, Dan Salpeter (source: Channel 10 Israel)
Lonah Chemtai and her husband, Dan Salpeter (source: Channel 10 Israel)

For Lonah Chemtai time is running out. The Kenyan-born runner, who came first in this year’s Tel Aviv marathon, wants to race for Israel at the Rio Olympics this summer, but with a little over one month to register, she must first be granted Israeli nationality.

Chemtai, 27, is waiting on a decision about her status, hoping that the notoriously slow Israeli bureaucracy will be fast enough to get her on the Israeli Olympic team this summer.

“It’s not like the Israeli way — maybe a day late, maybe a week late,” Gili Lustig, the head of Israel’s Olympic committee, explained to Channel 10 television about the Games’ strict rules. “By April 29, we have to submit all the lists.”

“It’s nothing something we can excuse,” Lustig said. “If a [person] comes to us and lives among us and we deny her something so elemental and simple.”

He denied that Lonah is potentially taking a place that could be filled by an Israeli athlete. “She is not taking anyone’s place. On the contrary. She’s the first. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t take her in and give her Israeli nationality and she represent us in Rio and I hope in the [2020] Olympics in Tokyo.”

Chemtai came to Israel eight years ago, as a nanny for a diplomat at the Kenyan embassy. A keen runner, she was introduced to Israeli coach Dan Salpeter, and the two fell in love.

When her stint at the Kenyan consul was up, Lonah returned to Kenya but her heart was with Dan. The couple decided to marry in Kenya and live in Israel. They now have a one-year-old son Roy, who was born in Israel. Completing the family is their little black and white dog, Mumu.

“There is something about Lonah that you fall in love with,” said her friend, Hadas Dagin. “She has magic.”

Her husband’s family has been more than welcoming. “It’s hard to describe the level of connection created between her and my family,” said Dan.

“The way they welcome me, I feel okay,” said Lonah. “They are really sweet.”

Yet not everyone in Israel has been so accepting.

“We’ve experienced a lot of racism,” said Dan’s sister, Moran Salpeter. “People say, ‘How could your family accept her? She’s different.’ It took my family precisely five seconds to get used to it, to love her and accept her, she’s just amazing. It seems to me that she’s more Israeli than all of us.”

In marked contrast, the Israeli authorities were less receptive.

“Sometimes I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and thought ‘what will be?'” Dan said. “When will she get status in Israel? Basic status, not citizenship.”

He also found fault with the attitude of some officials.

“They didn’t understand her in interviews,” he said. “She speaks English with a certain accent and they decided not to understand her. There’s no such thing as ‘we didn’t understand,’ they chose not to understand.”

And the hostility was not just at government level, but at times in her sport too.

“There was a race two weeks ago… They took time out beforehand to tell me that the prizes were for Israelis only,” said Dan. “In other words, ‘why did you enter the competition?’ She’s an Israeli sportswoman. She came up through the Israeli association, an Israeli coach trains her, her training partners are Israelis.”

One helping hand has come in the form of Kenya’s veteran ambassador to Israel, Augostino Njoroge, who has vowed to assist Lonah in every way he can.

“Israel should take this opportunity,” he said, expressing the hope that Lonah’s case will soon be resolved.

“Kenya and Israel are so good friends, we cannot hand you the medal, but we can give you somebody who can bring the medal,” said the diplomat. “This is what good friends are there for.”

This week, Lonah and Dan returned to the Interior Ministry in Tel Aviv, where they presented a new application and fresh testimonies, including one from Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev. This latest application for citizenship is now in the hands of the authorities.

According to Dan, they are optimistic, and perhaps with good cause.

A statement from the office of Interior Minister Aryeh Deri broadcast by Channel 10 on Friday said: “Lonah’s citizenship request as an outstanding sportswoman was presented on Thursday to the Population, Immigration and Border Authority in Netanya. The request will be passed immediately to the minister, who has indicated that he will view it positively.”

“I am already Israeli, so I am part of Israel. Because now it is like my second home,” Lonah told Channel 10.

“I hope I succeed and I am waiting to become an Israeli. I’m patient, it will happen one day,” she said to Haaretz in January, but the clock is ticking.

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