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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

In the concrete stands were young women in jeans, scarves and heavy makeup flirting with runners and schoolmates, and kids such as lanky Salah Sadir Hassan, 17, who sees Nyala and Khamis as akin to glamorous rock stars.

"I want to become a runner for the lifestyle," Hassan said, watching his heroes stretch in fancy Lycra warm-ups on the sandy edges of the track. "And also to put Sudan on the map."

There were government workers, police officers and a bus driver named Salem Makki with his 5-year-old son, Mohamed. "It's a nice way to spend time outside the house," Makki said. "Sports is the opposite of war."

But activists who have joined the "Dream for Darfur" campaign, whose spokeswoman is actress Mia Farrow, want to use the Olympics to remind the world of the conflict. They are pressuring China, which buys two-thirds of Sudan's oil, to use its leverage with the Sudanese government to end the conflict and have promised protests and daily webcasts from displacement camps in Darfur during the first week of the Games.

China has provided arms and military training to Sudan, whose ruling party is accused of causing as many as 450,000 deaths in Darfur. Chinese officials have also urged the International Criminal Court to reconsider the recent genocide charges against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

For many people hanging out at the track, though, all that seemed out of place amid the competition, the cheers and the announcement that Nyala had just qualified for a possible spot on Sudan's Olympic team.

"We just hope to do well," El Jack said, adding that she hopes the team's success can help Sudan "move beyond things like Darfur."

When she first started out in her home town of El Obeid, south of the capital, she shared shoes with other runners on a local team. That's just how it was, she said.

"They were okay, but when I got used to them they were even better," said El Jack, who seemed nonplussed about her ascent into the world class. "It was normal. I got used to it."

To help pay for training abroad and the trip to Beijing, the Sudanese team has relied in part on a donation from the British government -- made largely because of British defense attache John Rollins.

When Rollins first arrived on assignment in Sudan, he said, he was astounded to find the most promising runners training barefoot and lifting cement cans and logs.

"The weather is appalling, you have chunks coming out of the track, and yet they produce world-class athletes out of sheer will and determination," he said. "And it's the one activity in Sudan that brings in everyone. These guys are nonpolitical."

The coaches write e-mails to their friends abroad asking for money and equipment to support the up-and-comers. The money from the Sudanese government is not enough. Mohamed Ibrahim Jaber, one of the coaches, said his wish list is long.

"A nice track, a nice field, a nice gym," he began. "Also shoes, spike shoes, shirts, warm-ups and medicine -- the coach gives the massage but has no medicine. Maybe some training equipment, a triple jump, weight machines."

As the last race of the day finished, the crowd began to break up, and some of the kids climbed down from the stands to mingle with Nyala. As fans and local TV and radio reporters swarmed around him, Nyala talked about how running connects him to the world and world cultures, how he has little to do with politics.

"I've got nothing to do with the government," Nyala said. "I'm running for Sudan, I'm running for the whole country, and I'm also doing it for myself."

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