1. Archive

ROBERTO BRUNI // They're ambassadors starting from obscurity

Roberto Bruni approached with trepidation, if not desperation.

He reached out to shake hands, simultaneously grasping his prey's right elbow so as to prevent retreat.

"You are a journalist?"

There was no need to ask. The bright yellow rectangle with the large black E on my credential was specific enough _ and the credential listed name, affiliation and occupation. Journalist.

"You are here for the West Africans?"

Well, no. An appointment to speak to several athletes at the Olympic Village had been set up. They had not yet arrived at the media center.

"You will speak to the West Africans?"

Bruni was, in his dignified yet insistent way, pleading.

Behind him was a conference room capable of seating at least 200. At the head table, six microphones stood at mute attention. Behind them were a splash of color, several national flags.

Bruni proffered a business card with the Atlanta 1996 symbol. It identified him as Coordinator, National Olympic Committee Relations.

More accurately, he was in marketing, a promotions director, a public-relations man. His clients this day were the West Africans, five nations, three of them _ Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Sao Tome and Principe _ making their Olympic debut.

Bruni had secured the room for three hours. Several days earlier he had sent e-mail to hundreds of print and broadcast journalists from North America and every other continent. He had distributed faxes to hundreds more. Come and meet some of the newest nations in the Olympics, he had said. Meet their athletes, the chefs de mission

heading their delegations.

The athletes and officials stood or sat in small knots, chatting.

No journalists had shown up. None.

"Please speak to the West Africans," Bruni said.

A deal was cut. After the scheduled interview, if any West Africans remained, I would speak to the West Africans.

Fifty minutes later, they were all there. Still, no other journalists.

Sao Tome and Principe sent two women and two men to the Olympics. Cape Verde sent one woman and three men. Guinea-Bissau sent one man. Period. And the International Olympic Committee paid their way.

"If the IOC does not bring us here free, we do not come," Francisco da Costa, an ecomonist and chef de mission for Guinea-Bissau said, Bruni translating from da Costa's native Portuguese as he did for all the West Africans. "But we do not come here to win medals. We know we do not do that. We are here to meet people we otherwise do not meet. We are members of the international community. We cannot be excluded."

These are the other Olympic nations. And maybe they are the ones that most accurately reflect what Baron Pierre de Coubertin had in mind a century ago when he created these once-purely-amateur Games _ that "the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle."

Life in these West African nations is nothing but struggle. They have no billion-dollar Nike campaigns designed to put a gold medal around Michael Johnson's neck. They have no Coca-Colas, NationsBanks or IBMs to bankroll the building of stadiums and training sites.

They could not afford uniforms for the Olympics. Reebok donated them. They do not have computers to provide statistics. They have no equipment on which to train. "Everything the developed nations take for granted is a struggle," Manuel Jesus Rodrigues, chef de mission of Sao Tome and Principe, said.

"We will not win any medals. We have no hope of that. But we have our pride," he said, pointing at his lapel. "We have our own Olympic pin. With this, we are equal. We make sure they are at every program. We want to be part of the world."

They produce little of anything of value to the rest of the world. They produce barely enough for themselves, if that much. The gross national product of these nations, each of which gained independence from Portugal in the 1970s, is not too much more than Shaquille O'Neal's salary. The average salary is $10 a month.

Sao Tome and Principe hurdler Osvaldo Cassandra Barbosa displayed his Nikes, "I bought these here," he said. "Back home I have . . ." he and Bruni chattered back and forth for a moment, ". . . cloth ones.

"It will be very difficult going home. I have seen what there is (beyond his region's borders) and I will be going away from it. And these," Barbosa pointed to his Nikes, "they will create jealousy."

When you can find Nikes there, they cost about the same as they do here. Imagine spending more than half your annual salary on a pair of sneakers. How badly do you want to be like Mike?

"I train just as hard as Michael Jordan to be an athlete," said Sao Tome and Principe sprinter Pericles Dos Ramos Jesus. "There is frustration that he probably makes more than my country."

His coach, Gervasio Martins de Pina, put a hand on his runner's knee as if to soothe him.

"These are the real athletes," said Jose Manuel vas Fernandes, president of Guinea-Bissau's national Olympic committee. "The real athletes go to compete for themselves, to win medals for their country. To make money from these Games, it cannot happen for us. They do not train under the same conditions. They do not have the time to prepare like the Americans. Their job is to run. It is how they make money."

Antonio Dos Santos Aguiar, president of Sao Tome and Principe's national Olympic Committee, smiled. "An athlete who wins a medal for us," he said, "is a national hero. There is no money, of course. But there is the face on a stamp."

Dos Ramos, 22, said he has seen things here that stretch credulity. Twenty-five dollars to park a car near a venue. People tossing around $100 bills for tickets to events.

"When I was young and I saw America on the television, I thought it was all just a movie, that it could not be true. When I got here, I discovered it was real. I came to realize that America and other countries have what I thought was just make-believe."

Chances are you have never heard of Cape Verde, of Guinea-Bissau, of Sao Tome and Principe. You are not alone, and they know it. And they understand.

"It is a question of culture, of knowledge of geography," vas Fernandes said. "The small fish has to know where the big fish is so as not to be eaten. America does not need to know where Guinea-Bissau is, but we need to know where America is."

And so Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tome and Principe treat the Olympics not as a sporting event but as a trade show. You have never heard of us, they say to the United States, to Japan, to Nike, to Sony, to the wealth of the world, or if you have, you know little or nothing about us. But we want to be one of you. So come build a factory in our country. Trade with us. Help us to be like you.

The interview ended. No other journalist had shown up.

Roberto Bruni grasped my hand and arm again, thanking me for speaking to the West Africans. Somebody had listened.

As he turned to go, he added, "You will help tell the world?"

Meet the man behind the athletes

BORN: Aug. 14, 1958, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

RESIDENCE: Kennesaw, Ga.

HEIGHT: 6-0. WEIGHT: 200.

SCHOOL: Jacksonville (Ala.) State, B.A., foreign languages.

PERSONAL BEST: Helped establish liaison between IOC and impoverished and war-torn nations to create their national Olympic committees.