In the U.S., a Golden Opportunity

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sebastien Konan trains barefoot at Remarck Sport Taekwondo by choice, and the worst consequence he may endure as a result is a bad case of mat burn. He prances backward and forward, eyes locked on his sparring partner, searching for an unguarded target. Konan whips his right leg forward, and the impact of the blow resonates off the protective pad covering his partner's sternum. His foot returns to the mat, and the dance continues.

Konan glides loosely across the blue and yellow mat, bouncing lightly off the rubber surface the way he never could do back home in Ivory Coast. His partner on this day, Mariam Bah, is a fellow Ivorian. She, too, appreciates the peace of mind -- or rather, peace of foot -- that such a simple amenity as foam flooring provides.

Bah, 32, and Konan, 27, are two of four Olympic Solidarity scholarship recipients who practice under Patrice Remarck at his taekwondo dojan in Alexandria. They moved here primarily because their home countries do not have the financial and logistical means to transform them into athletes capable of winning an Olympic medal, because concrete floors are not ideal training grounds.

On a grander scale, they left behind family and familiar environment for an opportunity to draw acclaim to nations unable to devote adequate resources to sports. For the United States (2007 per capita income: $45,800), a silver medal in an obscure event such as taekwondo would generate modest attention. Bring that same silver medal home to Ivory Coast (2007 per capita income: $1,700) or Mali ($1,000) and an entire nation would rejoice.

Olympic Solidarity is a division of the International Olympic Committee responsible for divvying up the share of Olympic television revenue that is allocated to underdeveloped National Olympic Committees from countries in Africa and Asia. Part of Olympic Solidarity allows for scholarships to be given out to more than 1,000 athletes from countries on those two continents, some of whom travel to foreign lands to utilize superior training environments.

"The main target of this program is universality," said Olivier Niamkey, project manager for the Olympic Solidarity athletes program. "We want to have as many [NOCs] represented at the Games as possible. We are hoping, as a bonus, that some of these athletes can win a medal. That's always a plus."

Three of the four Olympic Solidarity scholarship athletes training under Remarck will compete in Beijing. For them, qualifying is not enough. Two have been to the Olympics before; the other is a world champion. They came to Remarck because they desire to appear on a medal stand in a few weeks.

"In the United States, you have a lot of good facilities," said Konan, who lost in the semifinals of the welterweight division in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. "The coach is good. He lives here and he was an Olympian, a world champion, so training around that kind of person and having these facilities, in the Ivory Coast, it's kind of different. . . . It's a little bit easier to train on mats."

Unlike Konan, Assane Dame Fall struggled to adapt to his apparatus upgrade upon his arrival to the United States in January 2007. A kayaker from Senegal, Fall was awarded an Olympic Solidarity scholarship and placed at the USOC's training site in Chula Vista, Calif.

Accustomed to the wider, flatter boats used by African nations to introduce young athletes to the sport, Fall could not maintain balance at first in the more narrow, rounded hauls used at USOC training centers and in Olympic competitions. After training at Chula Vista for 18 months, Fall's time in the 1,000-meter race dropped from 4 minutes 45 seconds to 3:50, according to U.S. National Flatwater Sprint Team Coach Nathan Luce, who has overseen Fall's development.

"He started out at a pretty basic level, and now he's at a level where he's respectable internationally," said Luce, who noted that Fall also has knocked 15-20 seconds off his time in the 500 meters. "Assuredly, without a world-class training group, equipment and coaches, he would not be able to make such a huge gain in such a short time."

Fall is one of six Olympic Solidarity scholarship recipients who trained in the United States for the upcoming Games under the supervision of the USOC. Two Ugandan weightlifters and a Ugandan weightlifting coach worked out at the USOC training center in Colorado Springs, while a Nigerian weightlifter trained at Northern Michigan University. A 200-meter runner from Hong Kong also trained at Chula Vista.

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