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Helene Elliott

U.S. finds true spirit of Olympics

August 07, 2008|Helene Elliott

BEIJING -- Just when it seemed that nothing good could pierce the gloomy, gray haze that stifles this city, just when the U.S. Olympic Committee set the bar of foolishness and political expediency higher than any gold medalist will ever jump, a story comes along to remind the world that the Olympics, though appallingly commercialized, still have great redemptive power.

The captains of the U.S. teams participating in the Beijing Games soared above the pettiness of their elders Wednesday when they chose 1,500-meter runner Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese refugee who was abducted from his church at age 6 and targeted for a brutish life as a child soldier, to carry the American flag into the opening ceremony Friday at the National Stadium.

Early in the day, the USOC had all but disowned Olympic speedskating champion Joey Cheek, whose human-rights work with the Save Darfur group undoubtedly led Chinese officials to revoke his visa and prevent him from attending the Olympics.

The USOC willingly sold out Cheek, its SportsMan of the Year for 2006, to minimize the potential for political protest and allow its Chinese hosts to save face. He was a "private citizen," said Jim Scherr, USOC chief executive, so he would just have to fend for himself.

And it's not the least bit cynical to think that in return, the U.S. might expect China's backing of Chicago's bid to play host to the 2016 Summer Games.

With one noble gesture the rank-and-file members of the U.S. team put their leaders to shame, asking Lomong -- a member of the Team Darfur athletes' coalition -- to lead them onto the field Friday.

If anyone knows what it means to struggle, it's this soft-spoken 23-year-old who made the U.S. team by finishing third in the 1,500 meters at the Olympic trials on a sore ankle and a hungry heart.

"This is the most exciting day ever in my life," Lomong said in a statement released by the USOC.

"It's a great honor for me that my teammates chose to vote for me. The opening ceremony is the best day and the best moment of Olympic life. I'm here as an ambassador of my country, and I will do everything I can to represent my country well."

Lomong grew up in poverty in southeastern Sudan and was torn from his family by militiamen intent on forcing him into the country's north-south civil war. He and three other boys escaped their clutches and walked for three days, unknowingly crossing the border into Kenya. There, they were arrested and thrown into a refugee camp.

Lomong spent 10 years in that camp. One of his jobs was to rake dirt, earning a few shillings a day, the equivalent of less than five cents.

He spent a few of those precious shillings to watch the 2000 Sydney Olympics on a black-and-white TV, entranced by the spectacle of Michael Johnson winning the 400 meters and vowing to someday run like "that guy."

A program that found homes for the so-called lost boys of Sudan became his salvation.

Thanks to a heartfelt essay he wrote in 2001 describing what he would try to achieve if he lived in the U.S., he was chosen to live with a foster family in Tully, N.Y., about 20 miles south of Syracuse. There, he could eat more than one meal a day and also feed his soul.

To further his running career, he went to Northern Arizona University, where he won NCAA titles in the 1,500 outdoors and the 3,000 meters indoors in 2007.

The Olympics will be his first major international competition, but even if he does not finish in the top three here, he has already shown himself to be the most admirable of champions.

Eight years after his impossible dream, one year after he took an oath and became a U.S. citizen, he will be the flag bearer for the country that made his dream come true.

"The American flag means everything in my life -- everything that describes me, coming from another country and going through all of the stages that I have to become a U.S. citizen," Lomong said.

"This is another amazing step for me in celebrating being an American. Seeing my fellow Americans coming behind me [in the opening ceremony] and supporting me will be a great honor -- the highest honor. It's just a happy day. I don't even have the words to describe how happy I am."

If you applaud any athlete here, let it be Lomong. And save a salute for every American athlete who had the compassion to give this man this honor. With that decision, they showed they are the true leaders of this delegation, not the men wearing suits and ties and carrying USOC business cards.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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