By Amy Shipley and Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 7, 2008
BEIJING, Aug. 6 -- Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong was chosen by his U.S. Olympic teammates Wednesday to be the American delegation's flag-bearer at Friday's Opening Ceremonies, a move that will cast an additional spotlight on the controversy over humanitarian abuses in Sudan's embattled Darfur region as the Beijing Games begin.
The announcement of the vote by U.S. Olympic team captains came just hours after the Chinese government rescinded the visa of 2006 Olympic speedskating gold medalist Joey Cheek, the co-founder of Team Darfur, a group of athletes that aims to raise awareness about the conflict in Sudan and has been pressing China to do more to help end the fighting.
Lomong is an active member of the organization. "This is the most exciting day ever in my life," Lomong, 23, said in a statement. "It's a great honor for me that my teammates chose to vote for me. I'm here as an ambassador of my country, and I will do everything I can to represent my country well."
Cheek, who carried the U.S. flag at the Closing Ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, said he was "thrilled" by Lomong's selection. "I was more thrilled by it than I imagined I would have been," Cheek said by telephone. "It just seems incredibly relevant. . . . Every time I think I can't be prouder of U.S. Olympians, those guys find a way to outdo themselves."
Lomong, who made the U.S. track and field team by finishing third in the 1,500 meters at the Olympic trials last month, grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya after being taken from his parents by Sudanese rebels when he was 6 years old. He resettled with a foster family in Tully, N.Y., in 2001 and attended Northern Arizona University. He became a U.S. citizen in July 2007.
His selection as the U.S. flag-bearer capped a day of strong reaction to the Chinese decision to bar Cheek.
The White House urged the Chinese government to reverse its decision. Talking with reporters on Air Force One as President Bush flew to Bangkok from Seoul, press secretary Dana Perino said the White House was "disturbed" by the Chinese move and had sent U.S. Embassy officials in Beijing to complain. "We would hope that they would change their minds," she said.
Bush will be in Beijing to attend the Opening Ceremonies Friday.
Jim Scherr, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, called Cheek "a great Olympic champion" and said the Chinese action was "unfortunate." USOC Chairman Peter Ueberroth urged the U.S. government to investigate the matter.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry defended the decision. "Visa is a sovereign affair of one country, according to Chinese laws and regulations, and based on other host countries' practice on previous Olympics and other large scale events, China has made appropriate arrangements for foreign entry visas during the Olympic Games," it said in a statement Wednesday.
International Olympic Committee spokeswoman Giselle Davis said at a news conference that because Cheek was not accredited in any official capacity, he was subject to the usual rules that apply to visitors applying for a visa to enter China.
"Certainly the Olympic Games are about the athletes, the active athletes who are competing," she said. "He is a normal citizen in this case . . . and any citizen has to apply for a visa. It's a matter for the Chinese government."
China's role as a major customer of Sudan's oil has been controversial for the Olympic host. Critics have condemned China for failing to do enough to bring an end to the conflict in the Darfur region, a charge that Chinese leaders deny.
The issue has been a source of protests in the run-up to the Olympics.
"All I'm worried about is the kids who are dying, especially in Darfur," Lomong told reporters at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore., in early July. "The kids who don't have the dream they could be an Olympian or doctors or something."
The U.S. captains met Wednesday at the Olympic Village and spoke by telephone with those who had not yet arrived. Besides considering the developing situation with Cheek, they surely found Lomong's life story compelling.
Lomong eventually escaped from the rebels who seized him and about 50 other children, finding his way to a refugee camp in Kenya where he lived for more than a decade. His parents held a burial for him because they thought he was dead.
Lomong, who watched the 2000 Summer Games on a black-and-white television, eventually was sent to the United States as part of a program to help 3,500 Sudanese "Lost Boys.".
"The American flag means everything in my life -- everything that describes me, coming from another country and going through all of the stages that I have to become a U.S. citizen," Lomong said in the statement. "This is another amazing step for me in celebrating being an American. Seeing my fellow Americans coming behind me and supporting me will be a great honor -- the highest honor. It's just a happy day. I don't even have the words to describe how happy I am."
It is customary for an athlete known for more than just Olympic success to earn the privilege of carrying the flag. Cheek earned that honor in 2006 after vowing to donate his $40,000 medal bonus from the U.S. Olympic Committee to Right to Play, an organization founded to use sports as a platform to help needy children in disadvantaged areas of the world.
Cheek missed his scheduled flight to Beijing on Wednesday as he tried to arrange a meeting with Chinese officials. Authorities declined to give him an explanation when they called Tuesday to inform him his visa had been revoked, he said. Cheek said he had planned to attend the Games to support the more than 70 Olympians from around the world who have signed on with Team Darfur.
"They want the Olympics to have a great face, but they're going to do so by the means of suppressing any sort of free speech," Patricia Miranda, a 2004 bronze medalist in freestyle wrestling and a graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School, said in a telephone interview. "I think that's a pretty harmful reflection on the government -- even more so than would be one or two T-shirts or protests in the streets."
Lomong is one of three foreign-born men who will compete for the United States in the 1,500 meters. He finished third at the team trials, with a time of 3 minutes 41 seconds, behind Kenyan-born Bernard Lagat and Mexican-born Leonel Manzano.
In December, Lomong visited Sudan and was reunited with his parents for the first time since he was taken from them 16 years ago. They met in Kimotong, his home town, and went to look at a pile of stones covering some personal items. It was Lomong's own grave.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz in Bangkok contributed to this report.