When U.S. athletes chose Sudanese-born Lopez Lomong as U.S. flagbearer, it was widely seen as a slap to China over Darfur.
Hours before Friday’s opening ceremony, Lomong sidestepped political questions. He said he hoped to inspire others by his story of survival and stressed the importance of pursuing one’s dreams.
“I’m here as an athlete,” said Lomong, choosing his words carefully. “I’m here to represent my country to the fullest, and I’m here to be an ambassador for my country.”
Abducted by Sudanese rebels at age 6, Lomong escaped and spent a decade in a Kenyan refugee camp before moving to the U.S. in 2001. He qualified for the 1,500-meter squad last month, one year to the day after his becoming an American citizen.
Lomong had been outspoken about wanting to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in his homeland and is a member of the Team Darfur coalition representing hundreds of athletes opposed to China’s support for Sudan, where government-backed militias are waging a conflict in its western province that has claimed more than 200,000 lives.
“I need to send the message as an athlete from Sudan. I’m worried about the kids who are dying in Darfur,” Lomong said following his July 6 selection.
Asked Friday about human rights in China and Beijing’s support for Sudan’s current government, Lomong demurred.
“I’m here to inspire other kids who are out there watching these Olympics, as I was watching the Sydney Olympics,” he said.
“Me coming here ... I’m here to compete for my country. The Olympics are supposed to bring people together to peacefully blend and I’m looking forward to that and stepping on the track and wearing my colors and representing my country,” Lomong said.
China has repeatedly objected to political discussions during the games. On Wednesday, authorities revoked a visa issued to Team Darfur president Joey Cheek, hours before the Olympic speedskater was set to travel to Beijing. Cheek had planned to spend two weeks in Beijing to promote his effort urging China to help make peace in the war-torn region.
“I’m disappointed ... that Joey Cheek is not here,” Lomong said. “He’s supposed to be here. He’s an Olympian. It’s supposed to tell people about the situation that happened.”
Lomong avoided any direct criticism of Beijing, however, saying only that: “Chinese people have been great putting all these things together. It’s great being here.”
Lomong won a vote of team captains Wednesday to lead America’s contingent into the 91,000-seat Bird’s Nest Stadium.
Questioned Thursday about Lomong’s selection, Chinese official Cui Dalin reiterated Beijing’s stance that “sports competition and politics are separate.”
“We hope that these Beijing Olympic Games can enhance friendship between different countries and regions and enhance friendship between athletes,” Cui, the Chinese deputy chef de mission, said.
U.S. captains said Lomong deserved the honor because of the overwhelming pride he took in gaining U.S. citizenship. Lomong knew nothing of the Olympics in 2000, when his friends at the refugee camp in Kenya talked him into running 5 miles and paying 5 shillings to watch Michael Johnson on a black-and-white TV set with a fuzzy screen.
He said he knew immediately he wanted to be an Olympic runner.
“I’m very honored to be here and I’m very honored to lead the U.S. team into the stadium tonight. I’m very excited,” Lomong said.
All three Americans in the 1,500 are naturalized citizens — Lomong, Bernard Lagat (Kenya) and Leo Manzano (Mexico).