Where Once He Was Lost, Now He Is Found

U.S. men's 1,500-meter runner Lopez Lomong will carry the flag for his adopted nation, the United States, in the Opening Ceremonies.
U.S. men's 1,500-meter runner Lopez Lomong will carry the flag for his adopted nation, the United States, in the Opening Ceremonies. (By Andy Wong -- The Associated Press)
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By Thomas Boswell
Friday, August 8, 2008

BEIJING

For seven years, China has dreamed of orchestrating every detail, athletic and political, of its glorious Opening Ceremonies to the Olympics. Now, one lean 1,500-meter runner from the United States, chosen by his teammates in an act of open defiance, may steal the show. Lopez Lomong, one of the Sudanese "Lost Boys" and a member of the anti-genocide group Team Darfur, has been chosen by his 595 U.S. Olympic teammates to carry our flag on Friday. What, we couldn't find a Tibetan monk on the team?

What a coincidence. Just hours before U.S. team captains met to decide on the flag carrier, Chinese officials rescinded the visa of Joey Cheek, a speedskating gold medalist who carried the U.S. flag at the Closing Ceremonies at the 2006 Winter Games and later co-founded Team Darfur. After that slap at Cheek, U.S. athletes here had almost nothing to say on the topic. One even referred to the subject as "the question they warned us about."

Perhaps they didn't answer individually. But the entire U.S. team gave its answer -- as a group and in capital letters -- with Lomong's selection. You jerk Cheek's visa. We put Lomong in your face. And do it proudly.

You have to hand it to the Chinese Communist Party: They certainly know how to muzzle Americans. Cheek, a Princeton grad, might have held a seminar. Four billion people around the world will see Lomong carrying our flag.

Far more than that, untold millions of people, in the next few days, will hear Lomong's life story, in his own words. In a half-hour monologue here on Friday, just 10 hours before he was to carry the flag, Lomong told a tale of grief, endurance, redemption and almost unimaginable hardship that captures in human terms every aspect of the Darfur tragedy. And without Lomong saying a single "controversial" political word, he highlighted China's culpability by cynically supporting the Sudanese regime as partner in the vast oil company PetroChina.

When U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Peter Ueberroth was asked if the selection of Lomong was an expression by U.S. athletes about their views on China's human rights abuses, Ueberroth said: "The athletes can answer that better themselves. But either way, it's fine. Either way it's good. Lopez earned the right to carry the flag. You [media] folks can go with it. We'll get out of your way."

Let's get going. During a Sunday morning Mass 17 years ago, the 6-year-old Lomong, along with about 100 other children, was taken at gunpoint from his parents, driven away blindfolded in a truck and dumped in a cramped, windowless, one-room prison full of boys. There, they were fed millet full of barely visible sand, which prevented proper digestion, and, within days, gradually led to the death of boy after boy.

"They would go to sleep and never stand up again. 'Tomorrow will be my day,' " Lomong said. "But I had three angels." They were slightly older boys who told him to eat just enough of the death gruel to stay alive, but not enough to kill himself. After three weeks, the older trio discovered a hole in a fence. At midnight, crawling while guards talked, stopping when they fell silent, then crawling until they were outside the compound, the four boys began to run. "That is where my race started," Lomong said.

Despite one boy holding each of his hands as they fled, Lomong nonetheless battered his legs on so many trees and thorns "that's why they still look like such a mess . . . We ran for three days and nights. They would hide me in a cave while two of them went to get water. They would fetch some back for me in a big leaf."

When the four boys fell asleep at night, they made sure to keep their bodies pointed in the same direction that they had been running "so that we did not run back in the wrong direction toward the guards or run in circles," Lomong said. Finally, they were arrested at the Kenyan border -- penniless, unable to speak the local Swahili -- and taken to a refugee camp.

For the next 10 years.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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