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Last but Not Least : Haitian Athlete Says He Was Actually Running for His Life in Marathon at 1984 L.A. Olympic Games

March 09, 1986|JOHN COTTER | Reuters

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Dieudonne Lamothe finished an embarrassing last in the 1984 Olympic marathon, but no one knew he was running for his life--in borrowed shoes.

The Los Angeles crowd cheered politely as the Haitian staggered across the finish line that August afternoon. Television announcers made blithe comments about the sound of his name.

Lamothe was quickly forgotten as the marathon gave way to a Hollywood-style extravaganza that brought the Games of the XXIII Olympiad to a close.

But now, with the fall of Haiti's feared Duvalier dynasty, Lamothe has told his story--an athlete's tale of courage and determination.

Running in a friend's shoes because he could not afford to buy his own, he forced himself to finish the marathon out of fear that the Duvalier officials accompanying the Haitian Olympic team would kill him if he quit.

He lived alone in the Olympic village, shunned by the world's great runners and his teammates.

With every hour, his stomach churned and his mind reeled because, while he was representing his country before the world, Duvalier officials in Port-au-Prince had cut off electricity to his wife and son at home.

Lamothe, now 31, talked about past ordeals and future hopes during an interview with Reuters at the home of Elizabeth Namphy, the sister-in-law of Haiti's new ruling general.

She and other members of a working-class theater group called Troupe Theatrale Toussaint Louverture are among Lamothe's most ardent supporters.

He is a painfully shy man and stared straight ahead as he spoke in French and Creole, the language of Haiti's peasant class, and waited for the words to be translated into English.

Lamothe, who ran the 10,000-meter race for Haiti in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, said he was told he would go to Los Angeles only two weeks before the team was scheduled to leave.

While the other three members of Haiti's team--two women fencers and a male tennis player, all from Haiti's wealthier class--were given $2,000 each, Lamothe said he received only $250, half of which he gave to his wife.

An American electronics engineer loaned him a pair of running shoes. Another American gave him a running suit and a $60 athletic bag. He never saw the latter. It was stolen by a Haitian coach.

"With them (the Haitian Olympic officials) saying 'go' then 'don't go', I was up and down. I knew I wasn't ready for the race," Lamothe said. "I was worried about money. I knew my wife didn't have enough. A few days before the race, I got word that the electricity was cut. I had to go and beg."

As the marathon, the last event of the Olympics, approached, Lamothe was wracked by queasiness.

"I didn't feel right, but I knew every Haitian would be watching me. I wanted to run for the people," he said.

The night before the race, he said he met some Haitian Olympic officials. He suspected several had ties to the Tontons Macoutes, Duvalier's brutal private security police.

"They told me: 'If you don't run fast, don't come back.' They said it smiling, but I knew what they were saying. I thought I might be killed if I didn't finish. It's difficult for you to believe that, but that's how it was in Haiti."

Lamothe staggered through the race, placing 78th--last among the finishers--in a time of 2 hours 52 minutes 18 seconds, three minutes behind Leonardo Illut of the Philippines and six minutes behind runners from Malawi, the Virgin Islands and Botswana.

"I was relieved but disappointed," he said. "I knew all of Haiti was watching. But deep inside, it was finishing that counted."

Twenty-nine men who started the race failed to finish.

The Haitian officials said nothing about his performance. He thought he might get a new pair of running shoes for his efforts. Instead, when he returned home, he was condemned on radio and television by a leading sports commentator.

Yet, despite hardships unimaginable to world-class athletes, including going without food some days so his wife and five-year old son could eat, Lamothe pressed ahead.

With small grants from friends, he went to New York and finished a very respectable 60th in that city's 1985 marathon, completing the race in 2:26:23. He is confident of a top 10 finish at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and is shooting for the 2:12 mark.

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