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Sudan Runners Focus on Games, Not Darfur

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."

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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