Sudan Runners Focus on Games, Not Darfur

Athletes from Sudan, shown here at a recent East African track meet, seek to put their country on the map for something other than the conflict in Darfur. Video by Miguel Juarez/The Washington PostAudio: Stephanie McCrummen/The Washington Post
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 4, 2008

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- When they first started training, they ran barefoot in the hot sand, or in borrowed spikes or whatever clunky sneakers they could buy at their local market. With inadequate equipment and facilities, Sudan's future Olympians raced in khaki shorts and jeans, in 105-degree heat, along dusty highways, in shallow rivers and up staircases.

As they still do, they bench-pressed logs and paint cans filled with cement.

"We lifted boulders," Abdullah Nyala said, smiling. "Those were our weights."

The runner from Darfur was wearing slick black Nike gear when he qualified for the 1,500-meter Olympic competition recently. When he finished, a teammate hoisted him on his shoulders and a couple of thousand sweaty fans in Khartoum's half-crumbling stadium chanted words he hopes to hear in Beijing next week: "Sudan's on top! Sudan's on top!"

But Nyala, who was ultimately picked as an alternate for the Games, and his teammates say their chance at glory is being overshadowed by the conflict in Darfur and by activists protesting China's support of the Sudanese government. Instead of being celebrated when they travel to meets abroad, the athletes often find themselves being ambassadors of gloom -- buttonholed about a war they are trying to rise above.

"People ask you about the troubles," said Nawal El Jack, a shy 19-year-old woman who qualified for the 400-meter competition. "They'll ask what's the reason behind the fighting."

For many of Sudan's Olympians -- about half of whom come from Darfur -- the conflict is personal. Nyala has relatives among the 2.5 million displaced people living in sprawling camps across the region and neighboring Chad. Two other athletes come from two of Darfur's warring tribes: Abubaker Kaki Khamis, considered a gold medal contender in the 800 meters, is Misseriya, the tribe that helped supply government militiamen that have attacked Darfur's villages. Ismail Ahmed Ismail, who reached the finals in the 800 meters at the 2004 Athens Games, is Fur, one of the most victimized tribes in the conflict.

But those distinctions seem unimportant to the athletes heading to Beijing.

"We see this as an opportunity to bring us together and lift up the country," said Nyala, whose parents are farmers in Darfur. "We have all tribes on the team, and there is no problem."

It was around 6 p.m. and still 100 degrees in the shade as one of the last races of the day petered out around a spongy red track gouged with holes, a facility so poor that a runner for the war-ravaged country of Somalia called it "the worst track I ever witnessed."

Still, the East African meet drew an appreciative crowd of families, teenagers and wannabe athletes, a reminder that even as an unpopular conflict wears on, even as large numbers of people in the capital are unhappy with their government, there remains a sense of national pride.

"We all feel happy that these athletes are showing Sudan in a positive light," said Nadir Muhamed, 20. "We don't have only conflict here -- this man is from Darfur," he said, shaking the shoulder of his friend. "This one is from Nuba Mountains -- we're from all over."

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