By Thomas Boswell
Friday, August 8, 2008
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 Just hours before U.S. team captains met to decide on the flag carrier, Chinese officials rescinded the visa of Joey Cheek, a speedskating gold medalist who carried the U.S. flag at the Closing Ceremonies at the 2006 Winter Games and later co-founded Team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.
There, thanks to the United Nations, a group of 10 boys were able to eat one meal a day. "You eat late at night so it will carry you until the next night," Lomong said. "In the day, you play soccer or run to keep your mind off the hunger. . . . Still, some Kenyans were not happy with us because we had more food than they did.
"I thought my family was dead, but in the camp I became happy again."
Twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, the 10 boys got one chicken. They mixed it with salt and water to make weak chicken soup and treasured every tiny morsel of actual chicken, their only meat of the year.
In 2001, word arrived that the United States wanted to take 3,500 of these refugee "Lost Boys" to the United States to place with foster families. "But you had to write your life story to see who would go," Lomong said. "I just decided to say, 'This is me.' I put everything on a piece of paper."
After three weeks, "They said, 'Congratulations.' "
The rest was an incomprehensible swirl. An airplane, a family (Robert and Barbara Rogers) in Upstate New York and the sight of unfathomable cars, roads and cities. "I had to learn everything, like how to shower. [Is it] hot or cold? No, put it in the middle."
Straight from the airport, the Rogers took Lomong to McDonald's. Yeah, yeah, the Olympic sponsor. And what did he order? Chicken.
When he had eaten all he could, there was chicken left. "Throw it away," his new parents told him. "There's more at home." But he couldn't. "I remembered when a little piece of chicken was 'Merry Christmas to you.' So I took it home."
Given opportunities that American teenagers take for granted, he embraced his chance with his whole soul. School was a blessing but also breathtaking to a 16-year-old who had always learned his letters by writing in the dirt.
So, you ask, how on earth did Lomong get the idea of being an Olympian? Once in Kenya, he was given five shillings for watering cows. It was his only money but he never spent it, keeping it for the right moment. He heard others talking about the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and how, on the only TV set in the area, five miles away, they might watch it. So, Lomong and friends walked five miles to the black-and-white TV only to find out that, for each event you watched, you had to pay -- five shillings.
That day, Lopez Lomong saw sprinter Michael Johnson run and win, stand on the podium in a U.S. uniform and cry as his anthem was played. "I want to run as fast as that guy," Lomong says he thought. "And I want to wear that same uniform. I was so determined. I knew I could run. Running is what we do all our lives. It is part of our transportation."
On July 6, 2007, Lomong became an U.S. citizen. On July 6, 2008, he made the U.S. Olympic team. "It is what we call, 'Dream makes history,' " Lomong said.
Once he gained citizenship, Lomong returned to his native land and was reunited with his parents who had, long ago, assumed he was dead, held a funeral and buried what remnants, like a child's beads, that he had left behind. Last December, Lomong participated in a burial in reverse as his plot was unearthed and blessed. "They revive me back," he said with a grin. "I am alive again."
In his Sudanese village where war and genocide, disappearing families and starvation have seemed an unending fate, Lomong told everyone never to give up, that someone they believed dead "may be out there somewhere." For his parents, he bought a TV and told them: "You can watch me in the '08 Olympics. I didn't know I would make the team."
Then his sheepish, gap-toothed expressing broke into a wide-eyed smile: "But I did."
Not long ago, Lomong told a half-dozen track teammates, "I would like to be the one carrying the flag." As a member of Team Darfur, he knew it would spread information about the misery in Sudan and China's role as economic facilitator of the ruling regime.
"My [track] teammates spread the word."
When Cheek was denied his visa, the idea of Lomong carrying the flag had already been making the rounds among U.S. athletes. We'll no doubt learn the details of his election eventually. For now, nobody is giving details for fear of politicizing the Olympics even more. And Lomong, wisely, only says he wants to inspire other children, including those with challenges to overcome in China, while being a "good ambassador" for the United States.
"It will be great tonight," Lomong said. "I can't wait."
All across Beijing, pollution hung so low that you could hardly see from one venue to another across the street. Yet there will be a bright light in the Bird's Nest soon.
The Chinese may light their Olympic flame wherever they like. Lopez Lomong will be the night's truest beacon.
"I can't wait," he said, "to be the first one out."