GLOBAL VILLAGE : La Grange, Ga., Trying to Overcome Racist Past, Trains the Athletes of the World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gilbert Tuhabonye, a member of the Tutsi tribe from Burundi, knows little about the Civil War, which is so large a part of Georgia's history. He does know about civil war. On Oct. 21, 1993--"a date which I can't forget," he says--soldiers from the rival Hutu tribe came to his school in the village of Kibimba, isolated the Tutsi students in a small shed, locked the door and set it on fire.

Three days later, the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that 25 bodies were found burned alive. Although it is impossible to confirm, Tuhabonye says many other classmates either died in the flames or were shot when they tried to escape out a window near the top of the shed. He was the sole survivor.

Tuhabonye, 21, tells his story as he stands in the shade of pine trees near the La Grange High track after a workout on a hot, humid June afternoon. A middle-distance runner trying to achieve a qualifying time for the Summer Olympics 60 miles to the northeast in Atlanta, he is one of 45 athletes from 20 countries living and training in this former cotton mill town of 26,000.

Some are funded by the International Olympic Committee's Solidarity Atlanta '96 and Australia 2000 programs for athletes from developing countries, others by USA Track & Field and still others, such as Tuhabonye, by the La Grange Sports Authority.

During a recent news conference, Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG), was asked about financial, security and transportation concerns. He answered patiently, then asked a question of his own. "Why don't you ask about something positive?" he said. "Why don't you ask about La Grange, Georgia?"

If the ultimate purpose of the Olympic movement is to make the world a smaller place, a place where people from the Nile Delta to the Mojave Desert consider themselves neighbors, perhaps it is best to start in a small town.

The question is why this small town. Some people here demand an answer, turning it into a campaign issue in the most recent mayoral election two years ago, but supporters of the international training center believe the critics are a diminishing minority.

This part of the South, hard by the Georgia-Alabama border, is not normally thought of as a model for the global village, especially if that village contains many black faces. More slaves worked on the cotton plantations in West Central Georgia than any other part of the state before the Civil War. Afterward, landowners sought to keep their former slaves in chains through intimidation and other, more tangible methods.

Not far north of La Grange, in Newnan, there was a famous incident in 1899, when 2,000 people celebrated a Sunday afternoon by witnessing the torture, burning and mutilation of a black man convicted of a crime. Railroad officials added special excursion trains to make the occasion more festive for Atlantans who wanted to travel down for the occasion. With the man's dying gasps, according to local legend, he was heard praying for God to forgive his executioners.

Andrew Young, who would become the United States' first African American ambassador to the United Nations, recalls that as a child more than 40 years later he and his family were afraid for their lives when they drove through La Grange en route to Alabama.

Today, Young, co-chairman of ACOG, is credited for his role in bringing the training center to the town. Among the 20 countries represented by athletes, 15 are African.

"I think Andy is overwhelmed by this," said Bobby Rearden, an ACOG official. "He told me once, 'People in L.A. and New York will never believe this happens in the South.' "

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The program had its roots in Los Angeles' 1984 Summer Games. Young, Atlanta's mayor at the time, recruited 12 African nations to a pre-Olympic training camp at Emory University. As a contact, he used Ron Davis, a former steeplechaser and assistant coach at San Jose State who had spent the previous 11 years coaching in Africa.

When the IOC awarded the Games to Atlanta in 1990, Young wanted to duplicate the training-camp concept and suggested that Rearden meet with Davis, by then coaching in Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar.

Recalling a conversation he had with Chris Joseph, La Grange's then-mayor, Rearden told Davis he thought the town would welcome athletes from African nations before the Games.

With $750,000 in grants from the state legislature, 48 communities in Georgia are hosts to training camps this month involving delegations from throughout the world. Several nations, including South Africa, the Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia, Mozambique, Mauritius, Qatar, Seychelles Islands, Suriname, Swaziland and the Netherlands, are establishing temporary headquarters in La Grange.

But Joseph wanted a more lasting relationship with the Olympic movement. He hired Davis in 1992 to form a local track and field club for schoolchildren through the Troup County Parks and Recreation Department, with the intention of expanding it to include international athletes. Today, La Grange is one of four accredited track and field training centers for IOC Solidarity athletes. The others are in Barcelona, Paris and Rome.

Jim Minnihan, the La Grange Sports Authority's executive director, said that this year's budget includes between $300,000 and $400,000 from the IOC for Solidarity athletes, $10,000 from USATF for nationally ranked racewalkers and $40,000 from the city and county.

An additional $300,000 to $400,000 has been privately raised for athletes who are not otherwise sponsored. The most accomplished among them is Abdi Bile, the 1987 world champion in the 1,500 meters from Somalia. The majority, however, are like Tuhabonye, athletes who hope to participate in Atlanta and contend for medals four summers from now in Sydney.

In Tuhabonye's case, the fact that he is even alive is a marvel. Without being asked, he lifts his singlet to display the grotesque scars that cover his back. One arm and both feet also were severely burned.

Knocked down by classmates futilely rushing for the locked door when the shed was torched, Tuhabonye says that he was shielded during the height of the fire by their bodies on top of him. Eight hours later, after night had fallen, he used their corpses to climb to the window above and escape.

Tuhabonye, accustomed to running great distances at high speeds, found that he could barely jog. He says that a Hutu soldier gave chase but was ordered to stop.

"The other soldiers told him, 'Forget him; he will die,' " Tuhabonye says.

Two days later, he says, fellow Tutsis found him in a grassy patch where he had lain down to take his final breaths and took him to a hospital in the capital city of Bujumbura.

Now known by both tribes as "the Survivor," he is a hero to Tutsis and a demon not to be trifled with by Hutus. "They think that I am some sort of spirit who cannot be killed," he says, laughing. "Look at me. I am a man."

With sweat dripping from every pore after a demanding workout, he is not immune to Georgia's cruel summer heat.

Before he arrived less than three months ago, Tuhabonye spoke only a few words of English. His primary languages were Swahili and French. But after taking courses at La Grange College funded by the Sports Authority, he can now communicate with virtually everyone in town.

Dictated by the Burundi government to study agronomy in the small central African country, he says that the freedom of choice here will allow him to focus on his interests in computer science and business administration. When he passes his English equivalency test, he plans to enroll full time at La Grange College with a scholarship from the Sports Authority.

"If we do anything right here, it's the educational component," says Helen Rice, director of operations for the La Grange Sports Authority. "We give them an opportunity to become better athletes, but that lasts only a brief time. An education lasts forever."

Minnihan says that he hopes the success of the program eventually will be measured not by the number of medals it produces but by the impact it has on the world.

"We've got athletes who are national-record holders in their country, but, frankly, some of them couldn't beat the kids at La Grange High," he says. "Someday, though, they are going to return home to become leaders in their countries, maybe even sports ministers, and they are going to network with athletes from here who have become the sports ministers in their countries, and they are going to be able to solve problems. If that happens, you'll see a lot better world."

Many people here believe that La Grange is a better place because of the athletes, who visit schools, churches and homes to share information about life in their countries. They even train alongside the children in the La Grange Track Club, which is becoming a power in the Junior Olympics.

In return, the athletes learn about the United States.

"We took some of them recently to a grocery store," says Bo Carlay, who works for a local carpet manufacturer. "When we picked up chickens, they didn't know what they were. They were used to going to the markets in their countries and buying live chickens. We took them afterward to eat pizza, and they had never done that before. You realize how much we take for granted."

Carlay and his wife joined the "Adopt an Athlete" program that matches families with visiting athletes for outings. The Carlays were assigned Tuhabonye.

After a few weeks, he showed them pictures of himself in the hospital. They were so shocked by the spare conditions--he slept on the floor because the beds were full with other civil war victims--that they wondered not only how he survived the fire but the subsequent medical care. Tuhabonye says that he woke up night after night in the hospital with nightmares, hearing the screams of his classmates.

Yet, he says that he feels no bitterness toward the Hutus.

"I prayed to God and asked if he wanted me to seek revenge," he says. "He did not answer, so I believe that he wants me to forgive. I pray for them."

La Grange, whether it is aware of it, is making amends.

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That does not mean that everyone in the city is a booster. One of the issues of Our Taxpayers Assn. when its candidate, Gene Woodall, ousted Joseph as mayor in 1994 was that the city should spend less money on foreign athletes and more on local children. Minnihan says that he will not ask the city or county for funding after this year.

"Whether you agree with their point of view or not, I have my doubts about whether they would have objected if we had been talking about Swedish athletes," says one businessman, who asked to remain unidentified.

Joseph, who remains chairman of the La Grange Sports Authority, says that he doubts his support of the program was a factor in his loss. But he acknowledges that he was frustrated when Our Taxpayers Assn. threatened to picket a CNN Headline News crew in town to report on the training center.

"Can you imagine?" he says. "Here was an international news organization about to give us millions of dollars worth of exposure. And they wanted to picket?"

During a 1994 speech in La Grange, Young said that he had received a letter informing him that the town was no utopia for race relations. Indeed, the NAACP is involved in an ongoing dispute with La Grange over the system of at-large elections that make it difficult for minorities to gain representation on the City Council.

"All is not perfect in Atlanta, either," Young told the audience. "But there's a transformation coming here, and we are all better off because of it."

Two years later, it appears as if the program is here to stay.

The local newspaper, the La Grange Daily News, reports the athletes' results as if they were products of the county high schools. On a recent Monday, a headline at the top of one of the sports pages reported, "Paulino, Ousmane turn in impressive performances in Atlanta Grand Prix."

That referred to Tina Paulino, an 800-meter runner from Mozambique and the cousin of IOC Solidarity graduate Maria Mutola, and Diarra Ousmane, a sprinter from Mali. Both could make the final in their events in the Olympics.

"I don't hear the negatives," says Davis, the coach, who says he had misgivings about moving here after 17 years in Africa but has been welcomed. "What I hear when I walk down the street is, 'Hey, Coach, isn't it great that Abdi Bile has come to train with us?' "

On a recent afternoon, the Carlays received a call from Tuhabonye. He was so excited, Bo says, that he was speaking three-quarters French and one-quarter English. Bo's wife, Susan, thought he might be in some sort of trouble, and rushed two blocks from their house to Tuhabonye's dorm at La Grange College.

When she arrived, he was virtually in tears. He could not wait to show her the torch that he had run with that day in Birmingham, Ala., as Burundi's representative in the 15,000-mile torch relay. For one day at least, that was the flame that Tuhabonye carried in his heart.

* ESSAY: The Olympics and flag-waving moments go together like the Olympics and television. C8

* REPORT: Frankie Fredericks upstaged Michael Johnson in Switzerland, winning the 100 in 9.86 seconds. C8

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