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Posted: Friday August 8, 2008 7:28AM; Updated: Friday August 8, 2008 6:51PM
Tim Layden Tim Layden >
INSIDE OLYMPICS

U.S. flagbearer Lomong has amazing story of personal triumph

Story Highlights
  • Lomong was kidnapped by government soldiers in his native Sudan
  • He escaped and eventually was taken in by a family in New York
  • Lomong's selection as flagbearer has been widely wrapped in political terms
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Lopez Lomong
Lopez Lomong provided a detailed account of his remarkable journey to reporters in Beijing.
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
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BEIJING -- On Friday morning, Lopez Lomong sat before a room full of journalists and was asked to tell his story. Twenty-six minutes later, he stopped. And if this constitutes the longest press conference soliloquy that many in attendance had ever heard, it was also scarcely long enough to embrace Lomong's remarkable young life.

He spoke because this week he was selected to carry the United States flag during the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games. The honor was bestowed upon Lomong Wednesday night in a vote among the captains of the U.S. Olympic sports teams.

It is a singular honor, far more rare than winning a gold medal and in many ways more meaningful. The criteria are unwritten, but clearly the flagbearer must be representative of things Olympian and American, and Lomong is this beyond description.

The short version: Lomong was one of more than 100 young boys kidnapped by government soldiers from Sunday Catholic mass in his native Sudan at the age of 6. They were taken to a prison where they would be trained as child soldiers. Lomong escaped with three friends and spent 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp.

He was taken in at age 16 by a family in central New York as part of a program that is known as "The Lost Boys of Sudan." He ran, and ran fast, from a New York State high school championship to Northern Arizona University to a place on the U.S. Olympic team in the 1,500 meters last month in Eugene, Ore., exactly one year after earning U.S. citizenship.

His selection as flagbearer has been widely wrapped in political terms. In the days before Lomong's selection, 2006 speed skating gold medalist Joey Cheek had been denied a Visa to enter China for the Games, an action surely linked to Cheek's support of the humanitarian group Team Darfur (China supports the Sudanese government). The United States Olympic Committee subsequently turned its back on Cheek, calling him a "private citizen."

Hence, it was inescapable that the dots between Lomong, Cheek and China would be connected. Lomong and USOC CEO and board chair Peter Ueberroth were all asked whether the U.S. athletes were making a "statement" in selecting Lomong.

The athlete who spoke on Lomong's behalf says they categorically were not. "Purely coincidental," says three-time Olympian Adam Nelson, a shot putter on the U.S. track team. "People relished Lopez's story. They were affected by his story. They appreciated what he's overcome and accomplished. And his story really is uniquely American, because we're a nation founded on the principles that immigrants can succeed here."

Customarily, the meeting to select the flagbearer is attended by the captains of various sports. The captains of the U.S. track and field team are shot putter Reese Hoffa (men) and discus thrower Aretha Thurmond (women). But at the time of the vote, both were training in Dalian, more than 200 miles and an hour's flight from Beijing. An official from USA Track and Field asked Nelson, a graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Virginia Business School and a respected veteran who was already in Beijing, to give Lomong's nominating speech.

(It should also be noted that Lomong was not shy about pushing his own candidacy, which in some Olympic circles is considered bad form. "I'm going to mount a little campaign," he told The Associated Press in Dalian before the vote. This didn't bother track team members, who selected Lomong to represent their sport in the larger competition).

Nelson, who doesn't know Lomong well but knows his story, distributed a biography of Lomong to other captains, roughly 20 athletes in all, with others included by teleconference. Then Nelson gave a short speech, which might not have been necessary. "There were a few other sports captains in the room who were ready to nominate Lopez if the track team didn't," says Nelson. "They already knew about him."

But as far as responding to China. Or to the USOC? "I didn't hear a word about that in the room," says Nelson. "Maybe somebody was in a corner talking about that and I couldn't hear them. But I really think people voted for Lopez because they appreciated his story."

That is reason enough. It is a remarkable tale that has been told in chilling detail in many media. Lomong does not tire of retelling it. During a press gathering at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, writers listened to Lomong from a formal podium, gathered around him in a breakout session and then followed him into a hotel hallway, transfixed and rightly so.

On Friday morning, he told of weeping as he was driven blindfolded in a truck on the morning of his abduction. Of watching other young boys die after eating sorghum and grain spiked with sand. "It was just part of life," he said. "You say, 'It's his day today. Tomorrow will probably be my day.'"

He described his escape though a narrow gap in the prison fence and eating one meal a day in Kenya, late at night, and playing soccer to forget about his hunger. He spoke of small wonders: Eating his first American meal at -- of course -- McDonald's and learning that the shower handle is best placed "in the middle," between hot and cold. Of returning to Sudan and reuniting with his family, seeing the grave where they buried his belongings to symbolize his presumed death.

At the end of his story, he was asked about Cheek. "He is supposed to be here," Lomong said. "He is an Olympian. He is supposed to tell people about the situation that happened there."

Asked to comment on China's support of the Sudanese government and its larger human rights actions, Lomong backed off uncomfortably. "I'm here to represent my country," he said. "I'm here to inspire the kids who are out there watching."

There is no need for Lomong to speak out loudly. The larger significance of his work in carrying the U.S. flag, however coincidental (as Nelson points out), is self-evident: He is a Sudanese refugee performing in China, with status granted to few. His personal triumph, unlikely survival followed by great success, is every bit as large.

 
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