How Four Marathoners Organized A Ceasefire Protest From Across The Country
12:07 PM EST on February 4, 2024
ORLANDO, Fla. — Last year, while Jesse Joseph was still preparing for his first Olympic Trials marathon, he came across a clip of a runner in Athens winning a race while carrying the Palestinian flag. Joseph and his wife, Olivia Katbi—who works for the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions movement—saw the clip and immediately decided, “We gotta do this.”
Katbi started a Twitter DM with Joseph and Aidan Reed, a marathoner with the Roots Running Project in Boulder, Colorado, and proposed they do something similar at the Trials. From there, Joseph recruited his friend and fellow Portland runner, Julian Heninger, and Reed reached out to his friend Nadir Yusuf, a former Division II athlete who lives and trains in Moorhead, Minn. The four of them eventually met on a Zoom call last year and came up with a plan for the marathon Trials, which they had all qualified for by running marathons in under 2 hours, 17 minutes, or in Reed’s case, running a 62-minute half marathon.
The plan they landed on: Take Palestinian flags from friends in the crowd near the finish line and cross the finish line waving them. All four did exactly that in Orlando on Saturday, creating a surprising and powerful visual in a sport that is often strenuously apolitical. They finished well back of the two Utahns who punched their tickets to the Paris Olympics on Saturday, but were proud to have made a major coordinated gesture on one of the biggest stages they’ll get.
As Joseph later pointed out over a beer in Orlando after finishing 75th in Saturday’s Trials marathon, the overlap between elite endurance athletes and left-wing activists is tiny. “It was really nice to find people in the running world who give a shit,” Joseph said.
Reed didn’t disagree with the idea that American runners can tend to seem apolitical but disputed that this was inherent to the sport, pointing out track’s long history of politically charged moments. Reed was born in Ethiopia before being adopted by a family in Montana, and he says he often thinks about legendary Ethiopian barefoot runner Abebe Bikila dominating the 1960 Olympic Marathon in Rome just a few decades after Italian troops mustard-gassed Bikila’s home country. He also cited the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the Black man who was fatally shot while running in Georgia in 2020, and pointed out that Saturday’s race was in Ron DeSantis’s Florida. “The politics are there, whether we drag them in or not,” he said. “Running is maybe not as neutral a space as people might think it is, or at least it doesn’t have to be.”
Both Reed and Joseph said that they took their training and their Trials races seriously and that they had closely scrutinized USA Track & Field and United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee rules and technical documents, and even public statements from USATF leaders, to make sure their plan was allowed. Reed called the Trials the “pinnacle” of American marathoning. “I wouldn’t do something like this if I didn’t take it seriously,” he said. “I would never want to disrespect or be unserious at the Trials. None of us did this as a joke—this is a deeply serious thing.” They had not heard a peep from officials as of Saturday evening.
The quartet said in a statement and interviews that they were calling for a ceasefire in Gaza—which Reed called the “bare minimum”—and for the Israeli team to be banned from this summer’s Olympics in Paris. “Israel should not be allowed to participate in international competitions, generating positive PR for Israel, as if everything is normal,” Joseph said. “Genocide is not normal. Apartheid and occupation are not normal.”
Yusuf was the first to grab a flag and finish on Saturday, running an aggressive 65-minute first half and hanging on to run 2:16:15 for 25th in the nation. Heninger came flying in 30 seconds behind him, moving up from 62nd place at halfway to 30th. Reed and Joseph were 60th and 75th in a field of 200 starters.
Reed was somewhat disappointed with his run, saying the “wheels came off” in the final 10K. But he said getting the flag late gave him a “bit of a boost.” Joseph was hurting as well but said the flag plan helped his performance, knowing that he absolutely could not even consider dropping out. (About a quarter of the men’s field dropped out of a warm and sunny race on Saturday.) He described feeling a surge of energy in the final mile when he knew the flag handoff was finally coming.
Joseph and Heninger had never met Reed and Yusuf in person before seeing them in Orlando, although Reed and Katbi had briefly met at a political conference before. (Both are members of the Democratic Socialists of America.) There was another wrinkle: Who would hand off the flags? Joseph brought them, along with his racing shoes, in his checked luggage, possibly making him the least paranoid marathoner ever. Two of Joseph’s high school teammates, plus his stepbrother, were already coming to Orlando for the race. When they landed earlier this week, Joseph immediately informed them—no debate—that they would be posting up in the final mile and handing over the flags. They enthusiastically agreed.
On Friday, Joseph, Heninger, Reed and the support crew scoped out the course and spectating area to plan where the handoff would be. But Joseph’s friends still had never met Yusuf until race day. On Saturday, they said, they made it to downtown Orlando early and managed to see Yusuf on his warmup, wildly waving their flags at him to get the message across that they were the ones to find in the crowd.
Joseph and Reed described their thoughts about the Palestinian cause in stark and passionate terms after the race. “This is a slaughter of so many innocent people,” Joseph said in an interview. “The residents of Gaza have had their lives taken away from them for a long time … They’ve been living in this open-air prison, and to be born in a place that you can never leave is the act of stealing a child’s future … Very clearly Israel’s intent is to make Gaza unlivable."
“I feel an obligation to stand in solidarity with Palestinians,” Reed said in a phone call hours after the race. “I’m particularly frustrated and disgusted that the United States continues to arm and support and fund the Israeli government as it prosecutes this war … As a taxpayer, I feel implicated in it.”
Joseph had actually told a reporter before the race that he wanted the Israeli flag to be banned from the Olympics, but it was never published. Katbi had gone lightly viral posting Joseph’s official Trials bio, which listed his “greatest accomplishment” as “Getting married to my amazing and hot wife, Olivia Katbi, which will soon be topped by having a child with my amazing and hot wife, Olivia Katbi.” The official website of the Olympics interviewed Joseph about the bio and asked, “What do the Olympics mean to you?” He recounted that he told the interviewer that he believed that sports played a role as an outlet for healthy competition, but that you can’t have healthy competition without a foundation of respect—“and clearly, the outright massacre that’s happening right now goes so far beyond a lack of respect.” That was met with a “blank stare” from the Olympics.com interviewer, and Joseph says he was not surprised the remarks didn’t make the published interview.
Yusuf declined to speak on the record, saying that the group had designated Joseph and Reed as official spokespeople. In a statement sent out to reporters by Katbi, Heninger blasted the Biden administration’s ongoing military and diplomatic support for Israel’s war on Gaza. “We are all competing to represent our country,” he said of the Trials marathon. “This forces reflection on what this country currently represents.”