From African refugee camp to Olympic start line
BEIJING (AP) Lopez Lomong's life on the run began in the Sudan, and would have ended there, too, with just one false step. Two decades and thousands of miles later, it will slow to a walk for a few precious moments Friday night, long enough to carry the U.S. flag into the Olympic stadium.
"Now I'm not just one of the 'Lost Boys,'" he said. "I'm an American."
Lomong is not the first naturalized citizen to carry the Stars and Stripes - Olga Fikotova Connolly did it in 1972 - and the 1,500-meter runner is one of eight foreign-born members of the track and field squad, a number that swells to nearly 40 when the entire 595-strong U.S. contingent is included. But the first half of his version of the American dream reads like most people's nightmare.
Abducted at age 6 from the village of Kimotong when soldiers from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army burst into a church service in search of conscripts, the next decade of his life was a whirlpool of death, despair and starvation.
Lomong was trapped first for several weeks in a rebel base camp and then for 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya, hemmed in by a long-running civil war pitting the better-armed, better-financed government troops dispatched from Khartoum in the Arab-dominated north of Sudan against the ragtag army of the tribal black south. Nearly every day, on every side of him, he watched the life slowly ebb from kids his age, heard their final gasps and wondered whether he was next.
His first glimpse of the wider world came in 2000, when Lomong was paid five Kenyan shillings - about seven cents - to move a pile of dirt and then ran five miles with some friends to hand over their earnings for a chance to watch the Sydney Olympics on a black-and-white TV. Lomong stood mesmerized as Michael Johnson zoomed around the oval in the 400 meters. The moment it ended, he announced, "I want to run just like that."
Eventually, Lomong would, but first he had to find his way out of the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. His chance came the following year, when an international relief effort was mounted to relocate nearly 3,800 residents of the camp, most of them the so-called "Lost Boys of Sudan," to American homes. In an essay that provided his ticket out, he wrote poignantly:
"It was my life story. How I was separated from my family, how I ended up in a camp. Where my family was. By that point I thought my family was already dead."
Around the same time, Robert and Barbara Rogers of Tully, N.Y., read a notice in their church bulletin that Catholic Charities was looking for foster parents to take in Sudanese refugees. Their first meeting with Lomong was a classic.
"I'd ask him whether he understood how things worked," Robert Rogers said, still chuckling at the memory, "and at first he said 'Yes' to everything."
In fact, Lomong was amazed that the Rogerses had their own car, let alone three of them, and how wide and smooth the roads were. Afraid that he would be taken from his new home if he caused even the slightest problem, Lomong slept the first night with the lights on. He had no idea how to adjust the temperature in the shower and spent one morning jumping out of scalding hot water to lather himself with soap, then jumping back in. The next morning, he shivered for the duration of an ice cold shower.
"I thought that's how white people get white," Lomong recalled. "They shower in cold water."
The first cross-country meet he entered in high school, Lomong kept passing the golf cart racing ahead to pace the runners. The cart driver would take shortcuts to regain the lead, but soon enough Lomong caught up. After passing for the third time, he was gassed and got passed by two more experienced runners close to the tape.
For his second meet, Lomong's coach told him to run with the pack for two miles and if he had anything left to take off from there. He ran the two miles as he had in Africa, talking to other runners all the while. When he reached the two-mile mark, Lomong excused himself with "I must go now" and zoomed to an easy win. He grew into a lithe, 5-foot-11, 150-pounder and went on to become a state champion, then an NCAA champion at 3,000 meters and, at the U.S. Nationals last month, an Olympian.
"It's the song I've been singing and singing and singing," Lomong said, "and now it came true."
But that wasn't the only dream that came true. Last December, he went back to east Africa and was reunited with his parents and siblings. Included in the trip to Kimotong was a visit to the grave where, 17 years earlier, his mother and father had piled stones atop a necklace and a few other mementos of his childhood and mourned the son they thought was lost forever.
In a ritual service to celebrate his return, they sacrificed a goat, said several blessings and then pulled up the stones.
"We basically bring me to life," Lomong said, "again."
Good thing, too, since that gives him a chance to experience yet one more rite of passage.
"I keep saying I'm not sure if this is true or not true. I'm making the team and now I'm the first guy coming to the stadium, and the whole world will be watching me carry the flag," he said. "There are no words to describe it."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org