A Kenyan runner may race for Israel in this summer’s Olympics after being granted Israeli citizenship on Thursday, she said.
Lonah Chemtai, a 27-year-old who originally moved to Israel in 2011, had been fighting for citizenship for years.
Her case received national media attention when she won the Tel Aviv Marathon in February, breaking the qualification time for the Olympics in the process.
Chemtai is married to an Israeli, Dan Salpeter, who is also her coach, and the couple have a young son.
The couple received the nationality documents on Thursday morning, freeing her up to compete for Israel in this summer’s Olympics in Rio De Janeiro.
“Today I feel so happy,” she told AFP. “To get the citizenship is something not easy.”
She ran the Tel Aviv marathon in two hours, 40 minutes and 16 seconds, nearly five minutes under the qualification time for the Olympics. No other Israeli women has achieved the necessary time.
British runner Paula Radcliffe currently holds the world record for women’s marathon at 2hrs 15mins and 25secs in 2003.
Salpeter admitted the time she achieved in Tel Aviv would have put her towards the back of the pack, but said: “I think she will do much better.”
Chemtai said she wouldn’t be celebrating too hard Thursday night, as she had to get up in the morning to run 10 kilometers in the Jerusalem Marathon.
Chemtai originally 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 Salpeter, and the two fell in love.
When her stint working for the Kenyan diplomat was up, Chemtai returned to Kenya but her heart was with Salpeter. The couple decided to marry in Kenya and live in Israel. They have a one-year-old son, Roy, and a little dog, Mumu, who, as a Channel 10 TV report last week on her battle for citizenship noted dryly, is black and white.
Kenya’s veteran ambassador to Israel, Augostino Njoroge, assisted Chemtai. He told Channel 10 that Kenya has plenty of marathon runners and was happy to have Chemtai run for Israel. “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.”
Last week, Chemtai and Salpeter returned to the Interior Ministry in Tel Aviv, with the Channel 10 TV crew in tow, and presented a new application and fresh testimonies, including one from Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev.
A statement from the office of Interior Minister 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.”