Thursday, August 7, 2008

Stand tall, Lopez

I live for moments like this. The story you are about to read (I hope) isn't only about a refugee or a moment of honor. It is also about a group of Olympic athletes who made a choice based on character and something more compelling: By choosing a teammate who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Sudan, a man who spends a good deal of his time raising awareness of Darfur issues and whose organziation co-founder was denied a Chinese visa based on his political views surrounding Darfur, these athletes made a statement about the integrity of governments, including our own.

The relationship between the U.S., Sudan, and China is complex and a bit nauseating. Many people don't want to know. The members of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team want to make sure we all take notice. I wonder if George Bush will even give it a thought when Lopez Lomong strides past him at the opening cermonies tomorrow night.

(This story is a composite of several of those issued by wire services today, including CNN, Reuters, AP, and the Times of London. )

Eight years ago, Lopez Lomong didn't have a country. Now he will carry the flag for his adopted nation, leading the U.S. Olympic team into the opening ceremonies Friday.

On Wednesday, Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, won the honor of leading America's athletes into the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing after a vote by U.S. Olympic team captains from each sport.

Lomong, a 1,500-meter runner, will be the flagbearer only 13 months after becoming a U.S. citizen.  

Lomong was born in Sudan, but was separated from his parents at gunpoint when he was 6 years old. With the help of friends, he escaped to a refugee camp in Kenya. He lived in the refugee camp for 10 years, and in 2000, he walked five miles to watch the Sydney Olympics on a black and white television. His dream of competing in the Olympics began there.

After watching American athlete Michael Johnson run, Lomong wrote an essay about what he would like to accomplish if given the chance to live in the United States. In 2001, he came to America as part of a program to resettle lost children from war-torn Sudan. He lived with a foster family in New York state. After high school, he went to college in Arizona.

"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. "This is another amazing step for me in celebrating being an American. I don't even have the words to describe how happy I am."

He earned his spot on the U.S. team at the Olympic trials on July 6, exactly one year to the day after he got his U.S. citizenship. Last year, he returned to his village and saw his own grave, dug by his family in the absolute certainty that their son was no longer alive.

"In America, everyone has a chance to do all these things," Lomong told the AP. "I'm feeling so blessed to get an opportunity to represent the United States of America, to present the United States flag in front of my team."

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