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Atlanta 1996 / 15 Days To The Games

GLOBAL VILLAGE : La Grange, Ga., Trying to Overcome Racist Past, Trains the Athletes of the World

July 04, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA GRANGE, Ga. — Gilbert Tuhabonye, a member of the Tutsi tribe from Burundi, knows little about the Civil War, which is so large a part of Georgia's history. He does know about civil war. On Oct. 21, 1993--"a date which I can't forget," he says--soldiers from the rival Hutu tribe came to his school in the village of Kibimba, isolated the Tutsi students in a small shed, locked the door and set it on fire.

Three days later, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that 25 bodies were found burned alive. Although it is impossible to confirm, Tuhabonye says many other classmates either died in the flames or were shot when they tried to escape out a window near the top of the shed. He was the sole survivor.

Tuhabonye, 21, tells his story as he stands in the shade of pine trees near the La Grange High track after a workout on a hot, humid June afternoon. A middle-distance runner trying to achieve a qualifying time for the Summer Olympics 60 miles to the northeast in Atlanta, he is one of 45 athletes from 20 countries living and training in this former cotton mill town of 26,000.

Some are funded by the International Olympic Committee's Solidarity Atlanta '96 and Australia 2000 programs for athletes from developing countries, others by USA Track & Field and still others, such as Tuhabonye, by the La Grange Sports Authority.

During a recent news conference, Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), was asked about financial, security and transportation concerns. He answered patiently, then asked a question of his own. "Why don't you ask about something positive?" he said. "Why don't you ask about La Grange, Georgia?"

If the ultimate purpose of the Olympic movement is to make the world a smaller place, a place where people from the Nile Delta to the Mojave Desert consider themselves neighbors, perhaps it is best to start in a small town.

The question is why this small town. Some people here demand an answer, turning it into a campaign issue in the most recent mayoral election two years ago, but supporters of the international training center believe the critics are a diminishing minority.

This part of the South, hard by the Georgia-Alabama border, is not normally thought of as a model for the global village, especially if that village contains many black faces. More slaves worked on the cotton plantations in West Central Georgia than any other part of the state before the Civil War. Afterward, landowners sought to keep their former slaves in chains through intimidation and other, more tangible methods.

Not far north of La Grange, in Newnan, there was a famous incident in 1899, when 2,000 people celebrated a Sunday afternoon by witnessing the torture, burning and mutilation of a black man convicted of a crime. Railroad officials added special excursion trains to make the occasion more festive for Atlantans who wanted to travel down for the occasion. With the man's dying gasps, according to local legend, he was heard praying for God to forgive his executioners.

Andrew Young, who would become the United States' first African American ambassador to the United Nations, recalls that as a child more than 40 years later he and his family were afraid for their lives when they drove through La Grange en route to Alabama.

Today, Young, co-chairman of ACOG, is credited for his role in bringing the training center to the town. Among the 20 countries represented by athletes, 15 are African.

"I think Andy is overwhelmed by this," said Bobby Rearden, an ACOG official. "He told me once, 'People in L.A. and New York will never believe this happens in the South.' "

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The program had its roots in Los Angeles' 1984 Summer Games. Young, Atlanta's mayor at the time, recruited 12 African nations to a pre-Olympic training camp at Emory University. As a contact, he used Ron Davis, a former steeplechaser and assistant coach at San Jose State who had spent the previous 11 years coaching in Africa.

When the IOC awarded the Games to Atlanta in 1990, Young wanted to duplicate the training-camp concept and suggested that Rearden meet with Davis, by then coaching in Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar.

Recalling a conversation he had with Chris Joseph, La Grange's then-mayor, Rearden told Davis he thought the town would welcome athletes from African nations before the Games.

With $750,000 in grants from the state legislature, 48 communities in Georgia are hosts to training camps this month involving delegations from throughout the world. Several nations, including South Africa, the Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia, Mozambique, Mauritius, Qatar, Seychelles Islands, Suriname, Swaziland and the Netherlands, are establishing temporary headquarters in La Grange.

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