Paul Chelimo’s tale about becoming a U.S. Olympian is unusual, and the story behind his silver medal performance in the men’s 5,000 meters is stranger still.
We’ll work backwards, starting with his race in Rio on Saturday night.
Chelimo ran a personal best in the 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) of 13:03:90, finishing second with a strong kick and trailing only the remarkable Mo Farah of Britain, who won the 5,000 and the 10,000, the same difficult double he pulled off in 2012.
Chelimo’s performance was a big deal, marking the first time since 1964 that a U.S. man had medaled in the event.
But while being interviewed live by NBC’s Lewis Johnson, Chelimo was informed that he had been disqualified.
A visibly shocked and disappointed Chelimo took a step back, but continued the interview.
“I want to appeal that my intention was not to impede anyone,” Chelimo said.
Suddenly his silver was gone, which bumped up the placing of the runners behind him. American Bernard Lagat, age 41, became the bronze medalist.
A replay showed that as Chelimo was going around a curb amid a cluster of runners, he did land one of foot partially out of bounds — just barely — and that can be grounds for a disqualification. There was also bumping going on in the pack among multiple runners, a common occurrence.
But officials have discretion and can judge whether a violation was intentional or accidental and whether it gave a runner an advantage.
In Chelimo’s case, it seemed clear that the one step had no impact on the race. U.S. track officials protested the disqualification, and after further review by the governing International Associations of Athletics Federations, Chelimo was reinstated as the silver medalist. And Lagat was bumped off the medal podium.
“I thought it was a joke. I thought he was joking,” Chelimo said later, referring to the interview. “Now I’m really happy. I got reinstated. It’s the best feeling ever. It’s the best, best feeling ever.”
But there’s more to unpack here. Chelimo grew up in Kenya, which produces more world-class distance runners than any country, a fact well known to American college track coaches.
So Chelimo, 25, was recruited to run at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he was a star.
This recruitment of Kenyan distance runners has been going on for many years. But often the Kenyans head home after they are done with college.
But the military has stepped in. The Army has a World Class Athlete Program that allows those who qualify to train more or less full-time while also serving.
The program is open not only to Americans, but also to non-Americans who are legal residents of the U.S. This has allowed Chelimo and other foreign athletes to join the American military, and by doing that, they can get expedited U.S. citizenship.
Normally, naturalization can take up to five years, but those serving in the U.S. military can become citizens after they complete basic training. Chelimo joined the Army in 2014 and became a citizen in time to run for the U.S. at the Olympics. He currently holds the rank of specialist and works in water treatment.
“Actually, my main goal was to represent the United States. Being an Olympian is the best way to represent the United States,” he told NPR in July at the U.S. Olympic Trials after he made the U.S. team. “That was the best program because I could do my career as a soldier and also focus on my talent.”
Eleven members of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program went to Rio, and Chelimo was one of four Kenyan-born runners in the contingent.