The most patriotic American I know isn't Ollie North or John McCain or even Pat Boone. The most patriotic American is not even an American yet. He's a tiny former Brooklyn dishwasher from Morocco who would like nothing more than to burn his green card. His name is Khalid Khannouchi, and he loves the U.S. so much that he's willing to pass up a shot at winning an Olympic gold medal if he can't run for the Stars and Stripes. Too bad America doesn't seem to give two Fig Newtons about him.
Khannouchi is the world-record holder in the marathon—by about a Macy's parade. His time of 2:05:42 at this year's Chicago Marathon lopped 23 seconds off the old mark, which is like outeating John Madden by a meat loaf and a half.
Khannouchi desperately wants to run the Sydney Olympic marathon next October in a U.S. jersey. He jumped through all the proper naturalization hoops and should have been on track to become an American citizen by next spring. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service so bungled his case that he's not going to make it for the start of the race.
Here's the sad thing: Khannouchi says if he can't run for America, he's not going to run in Sydney at all. He refuses to run for Morocco, despite great and sparkling baubles laid before him by the country's minister of sports. "He offered me anything I want," says Khannouchi. "Cars, houses, money." But Khannouchi turns his back on all of it. Years ago he asked the Moroccan track federation for financial assistance and was refused. That's why he went to Brooklyn in 1993, started washing dishes in a restaurant for $120 a week, shared a crummy apartment with three friends and began training again. He then lived off his race winnings until Reebok became his first sponsor in early '96.
' America made me better," says the achingly polite Khannouchi, who stands only 5'5" and weighs less than a pogo stick but runs like a Humvee on a full tank of gas. "The people, they're so good to me. Just a thank you is not near enough. I want to show my thanks."
Just a thank you is not near enough? Gee, we'd hate to have a citizen like this.
Khannouchi married an American woman, Sandra Inoa, in September 1996 and applied for his green card two months later. Problem was, he didn't get his interview with the INS until September 1997. O.K., that was slow, but it still shouldn't have kept Khannouchi from becoming a citizen in time for the Sydney Games. The INS caseworker told Khannouchi his green card application was approved, but, remembers Sandra, "We thought it was funny that he didn't stamp Khalid's passport." Six months went by. No green card. Suddenly, the caseworker, Abdul Latif Abdul Salam, showed up in the New York papers, indicted on several charges including conspiracy to defraud the U.S. On Nov. 4 he was convicted on one count of conspiracy and two counts of bribery.
Khannouchi's paperwork—and that of who knows how many others—went back into the pile. (The current backlog is 1.36 million cases.) The INS finally gave Khannouchi a green card, but it's dated August 1998, which means he can't be a citizen until August 2001. He could be the first marathoner to lose an Olympic gold medal to red tape.
The INS isn't budging. Then again, not budging is what the INS does best. If the INS were a person, it would be Norm from Cheers. According to INS director of communications Maria Cardona, the agency won't expedite cases for nonemergency reasons. When contacted by SI, INS commissioner Doris Meissner would not comment.
It stinks, is what it does. It's like the meter maid towing your car into a NO PARKING zone and then writing you a ticket. Khannouchi isn't asking for special treatment, just the U.S. passport he deserves.