Lomong's long journey goes from Sudan to U.S. flag bearer at Olympics

Posted: August 09, 2008

BEIJING - It is beautiful, the tale of 23-year-old Sudanese immigrant Lopez Lomong, his 17-year journey from Lost Boy to flag bearer for the United States Olympic team.

"His story is the epitome of the American dream," said Mark Lopez, a taekwondo contender and first-generation Nicaraguan-American.

It is significant, too; cleverly, and wonderfully.

As atrocities in Darfur and China's cozy relationship with Sudan shadow these Olympics, Lomong yesterday retold his story to an assembled international media audience. He told of his kidnapping, his escape, his 10 years in a refugee camp from ages 6 to 16, his attainment of an unimaginable dream - moving to America to emulate his hero, U.S. track star Michael Johnson.

He avoided criticizing his home nation, but then International Olympic Committee rules prohibit any such comment.

He acknowledged he was disappointed that Joey Cheek, a 2006 speedskating gold medalist, had his visa revoked by the Chinese government on Thursday, the day on which Lomong was chosen flag bearer. Cheek is an active agitator, the co-founder of Team Darfur, a coalition of athletes bringing light to a genocidal regime in Sudan. Lomong belongs to Team Darfur.

Otherwise, Lomong is an anonymous 1,500-meter runner chosen amid a cadre of corporate gold-medal favorites. His elected presence alone spoke volumes about how the U.S. team feels about China and Darfur; no team members acknowledged that they chose Lomong for political reasons . . . which, of course, would be a violation of IOC rules.

It doesn't matter.

The precise, harrowing details of Lomong's story, his sincere delivery, his embodiment of what makes America unique - it served to shame the IOC and China and any entity reluctant to criticize the continuing hell in Africa's Red Sea giant.

Lomong's story began not with the current strife but in 1991, when Sudan was torn by civil war. His eyes wide, his diction precise, he transfixed a room crammed with hardened international scribes:

* How, when he was 6, soldiers stormed an open-air church early one Sunday morning, kidnapped dozens of young boys, blindfolded them and dragged them to a canvas-backed transport truck, drove them off and imprisoned them to train them to be boy soldiers, while they assumed their families were dead.

* How, while imprisoned, he witnessed his fellows die routinely, the victims of sand intentionally sprinkled in their sorghum rations: "They would go to sleep, and they wouldn't stand up again . . . You would think, 'Probably tomorrow will be my day [to die].' ''

* How a trio of older boys helped him escape one moonless night through a hole in the compound's fence; how they crawled on their bellies while the guards talked, stopping when they were silent; how, once through the fence, they ran over rocks and thorns, essentially carrying him between them, only his toes touching as they fled: "That's when my race started."

* How they journeyed, hiding in caves, sending the older boys out one at a time to dig in the ground for water, each bringing Lomong some water back in a cup made from a leaf; how for 3 days and nights they lived in terror, sleeping with their backs facing the way they came so as not to inadvertently backtrack when they awakened; how they finally crossed the border to Kenya, where officials stopped them.

* How the Kenyans stashed him and his saviors in a refugee camp, the "Lost Boys of Sudan"; how he quickly lost track of his three friends, but, for 10 years, assimilated himself into the camp's social structure, the younger boys cleaning, the older boys cooking: "I thought my parents were already dead. I had to start another family. I became happy there again."

* How that happiness involved one meal a day, the ration of a monthly U.N. food allotment, the meal eaten late at night to make sleep a possibility, because you could play the day away with an empty belly: "Anything to keep your mind off of the hunger."

* How the boys rejoiced at Easter and Christmas to split one chicken among 10 of them, the only chicken they had all year. They would make a thin, salty soup to make the chicken last for days: "If you get a piece of chicken, Merry Christmas to you."

* How, in 2000, he walked 5 miles with five saved shillings earned watering a local Kenyan's cow and used the money for admission to a house with a black-and-white television where he watched Johnson win gold, then weep for joy on the medal podium: "I said, 'I want to be as fast as that guy. I want to run for that country. I want to wear that same uniform.' '' He knew it was impossible.

* How, a year later, a missionary told him of a U.S. program aimed at relocating 3,500 Lost Boys; how he agonized over preparing his essay, a mishmash of Swahili and English: "There wasn't a guarantee you would get a chance to go to the free world."

* How, 3 weeks later, he learned he was leaving Africa to be welcomed by Robert and Barbara Rogers in tiny, chilly Tully, N.Y., 15 minutes south of Syracuse. At 16, he had never seen such wealth: no more learning lessons in dirt, since he now had pens and paper and books; no more cold baths, though he had to master the delicate "warm" setting in a shower; and, especially, no more hunger: "Food was, like, huge. I couldn't take it anymore."

* How chicken suddenly was as common as sorghum. His first restaurant: Olympic sponsor McDonald's, where he couldn't finish his chicken sandwich: "I ate the chicken. I was satisfied." So he wrapped up the rest and took it home.

* How he visited his family - not dead, in fact - a year ago, when they exhumed his relics, since they thought him dead, too, and buried his possessions: "I am alive again." How he visited again in December, this time bringing them a television for Christmas, so they could watch him go for gold: "You will be watching me in the Olympics in Beijing."

* How, on July 6, 2007, he became an American citizen. How, on July 6, 2008, he made the U.S. Olympic team with a third-place finish in the 1,500 at the Trials: "That is a good day for me."

* How, on the flight to China from San Francisco, he started a grass-roots campaign to lead Team USA into National Stadium, carrying the colors he once longed to wear. "Seven years before, I was in a refugee camp . . . I don't even have a word for it."

At that point, he had used plenty of words, and beautifully. *

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