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Once a Lost Boy, Olympian triumphs in life

BEIJING — On the finest night of his latest life, the new American carried his flag into the splendor.

The acrobats were done, and the performance art was complete. But the glistening lights were brighter than anything he had ever seen, and the world was watching, and his heart was racing at a speed that even his feet have never experienced.

Lopez Lomong was a part of the Olympics.

Not only that, but the Lost Boy was leading the way.

Who could have imagined it? Lomong, the most unlikely Olympian of them all, walked into the Bird's Nest Stadium on Friday night, leading the athletes of the United States into the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

It has taken Lomong so many footsteps, and so many incarnations, to make it here. He was the kid who was ripped from his mother's arms, the kid who grew up hungry in a refugee camp, the kid who once gazed upon his own grave. He was born in Sudan, raised in Kenya and adopted by the United States.

And now, he was here, on this night of wonder, a human symbol in the most symbolic of all ceremonies.

He is 23, and he has been so many people. Why should it surprise anyone that Lomong now seems to mean so many things to so many people? Do you wish to see a survivor? Lomong is that. Do you wish to see a victim? He is that, too.

Do you see him as an athletic long shot? Given that this is his first international competition after finishing third in the 1,500 meters at the track and field trials, that's accurate. Do you wish to see him as a political protest over China's continued dealings with Sudan? Yes, that is possible, too.

Given his preferences, Lomong would rather you see him another way: as an American.

Lomong has been in this country for only seven years, and he has been a citizen for only 14 months. His speech is still heavily flavored by his African accent, and there are times when he struggles to find the right words to express himself.

When you think about it, however, America is a nation of immigrants. Who better to carry the flag than a man whose life has made him appreciate it?

He was 6 years old when the soldiers came. It was a typical Sunday morning in the Sudanese village of Kimotong, and Lomong's parents had taken him to an 8 a.m. Mass near the big tree where an open-air church had been constructed. It was the morning Lomong's childhood ended.

The soldiers walked in during a prayer, and they made everyone in the congregation lie on the ground. Then they took the children. They marched 50 or so of them, scared and weeping, to a large canvas-covered truck and hauled them away.

When the soldiers stopped at their camp, they blindfolded the children and led them into a one-room prison. When the cloth was removed from Lomong's eyes, he noticed that the girls who had been among them were no longer there. He has no idea what happened to them.

There was not much water in the prison, and the soldiers mixed sand with the grain they gave the children to eat to make it seem more plentiful. But the human body cannot digest sand, and soon the children began to die.

"The death was right there," Lomong said Friday. "I witnessed a lot of children who would go to sleep, and they wouldn't wake up again. It was one of those things where you say, 'Today, it was his day. Tomorrow, it might be my day.' "

Lomong got lucky. Three older boys took him aside and told him to not eat too much, to take a handful of the food, pick out the grains and eat them one by one. "They were my three angels," Lomong said.

Soon, the soldiers began to train the children to become soldiers, how to hold a gun and how to shoot. One of Lomong's new friends saw a hole in the camp fence. That night, three weeks after Lomong arrived, the four children sneaked through the hole and escaped into the night.

The night was dark. Lomong and the children crawled along the dirt. They were careful to move only when they heard the guards speak to one another. And then they were free and running through the trees.

"That's when my race began," he said. "The boys were holding my hands, and I was running on my toes."

For three days and nights, the children ran, hiding in caves, finding food and water, sleeping in the direction they wanted to travel the next morning to keep from getting lost and returning in the direction of the soldiers. Finally, they reached the Kenyan border and were arrested. They were transported to a refugee camp.

For 10 years Lomong lived in the camp, eating one meal a day. He thought his parents were dead; they thought the same of him. He worked when he could. He played soccer and ran to avoid thinking of being hungry.

One day, after working for 5 schillings (roughly 2 cents) moving dirt, Lomong heard about a place where he could go and watch this strange thing called "the Olympics." He walked 5 miles to watch on a black and white TV. It cost him his 5 schillings, but he got to see American Michael Johnson win a race. He was thrilled.

"I want to run as fast as that guy," he remembers saying. "I want to run for that country. I want to wear that same uniform."

A year later, an American visited the camp and told of a program to relocate the 3,500 Lost Boys of Sudan. First, he had to write his life story. So Lomong picked up a pen. Soon after, he had been placed with Robert and Barbara Rogers of Tully, N.Y.

For his first meal, the Rogerses took Lomong to McDonald's. He ate chicken. When he was done, his parents told him to throw away the extra nuggets. He was incredulous.

"In the camp, we only had chicken for Christmas and for Easter," he said. "We boiled it in a big soup, and if you got a bit of chicken, it was 'Merry Christmas to you.' Now I had a chicken, and I had an extra chicken to throw away? No, I'm taking it home. I had it the next day."

Lomong returned to Sudan to be reunited with his parents. After he was taken, they had searched for him without success. Eventually, they held a funeral for him and buried some of his possessions.

The family went to the grave site and dug up what they had placed there. "I'm alive again," he says.

There are others who are not. You cannot help but look at Lomong and think of others who vanished, others who had their lives altered and their dreams ripped from them, others who died.

As Lomong marched forward on a magical night, he represented them all.

The rest of us, too.

Once a Lost Boy, Olympian triumphs in life 08/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 14, 2008 1:54pm]
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