Tel Aviv’s Kenyan-born marathon winner in race against time to run for Israel in Rio
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Tel Aviv’s Kenyan-born marathon winner in race against time to run for Israel in Rio

Lonah Chemtai has an Israeli husband and child. Seeking to compete for her adopted country, she has been rebuffed for years. Now a TV report may cut the red tape

Lonah Chemtai and her husband, Dan Salpeter (screen capture: Channel 10)
Lonah Chemtai and her husband, Dan Salpeter (screen capture: Channel 10)

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, having hitherto been rejected — unpleasantly so, according to her Israeli husband. After a TV station stepped in, the current Interior Minister Aryeh Deri finally promised this week to weight her application positively, leaving her cautiously optimistic that the notoriously slow Israeli bureaucracy will be fast enough to get her on the Israeli Olympic team.

The Rio requirements “don’t work 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 would be inexcusable [if we fail to get Chemtai registered],” Lustig said, “if a [person] comes to us, and lives among us, and we deny her something so elemental and simple.”

Lustig made clear that Chemtai would not be taking a place on the Olympic team that could be filled by another Israeli athlete, because there are no female Israeli marathon runners fast enough to meet the Olympic standard. “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 have her 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.

Lonah Chemtai and her husband, Dan Salpeter, in training (screen capture: Channel 10)
Lonah Chemtai and her husband, Dan Salpeter, in training (screen capture: Channel 10)

When her stint working for the Kenyan diplomat was up, Chemtai 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 dog, Mumu, who, the TV report noted dryly, is black and white.

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

“There is something about Lonah that you fall in love with,” said her Israeli 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 Salpeter.

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

But not everyone in Israel has been so accepting.

“We’ve experienced a lot of racism,” said Salpeter’s sister, Moran. “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.”

The Israeli authorities were less receptive — until the TV report.

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

He also found fault with the attitude of some officials when she applied for citizenship.

“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, he said.

“There was a race two weeks ago… The organizers took time out beforehand to tell me that the prizes were for Israelis only,” said Salpeter. “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.”

Kenyan Ambassador Augostino Njoroge presents his credentials to then president Shimon Peres, July 5, 2010. (Issac Harari/Flash90)
Kenyan Ambassador Augostino Njoroge presents his credentials to then president Shimon Peres, July 5, 2010. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

Kenya’s veteran ambassador to Israel, Augostino Njoroge, has vowed to assist Chemtai in every way he can. He told Channel 10 that Kenya has plenty of marathon runners and was happy to have Chemtai run for Israel.

“Israel should take this opportunity,” Niorege said, expressing the hope that Chemtai’s case would 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.”

Lonah Chemtai and her Israeli-born son, Roy (screen capture: Channel 10)
Lonah Chemtai and her Israeli-born son, Roy (screen capture: Channel 10)

Earlier this 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. This latest application for citizenship is now in the hands of the authorities.

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

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri at the weekly cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, January 10, 2016. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

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.”

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