EUGENE. Ore. -- When Lopez Lomong finished speaking with a group of reporters after qualifying Friday for the final in the 1,500 meters, he said, “Happy Fourth of July.”
Lomong was not the only athlete in the U.S. Olympic track and field trials who earned the right to represent his adopted country in Beijing.
But if he paid a little more attention than most to the significance of competing on Independence Day, it has to do with Lomong’s realizing every day just how incredible his liberty is.
“I came a long way, for sure,” Lomong said, “from running through the wilderness to save my life, and now I am doing this for fun.”
Lomong has repeatedly told the story of that journey since his exploits as a high school runner caught the attention of the Syracuse Post-Standard in 2003.
The story is even more compelling now that the Sudanese refugee made the 2008 U.S. Olympic team by finishing third Sunday in the 1,500. The other two 1,500 men joining Lomong on the U.S. Olympic team, winner Bernard Lagat, from Kenya, and runner-up Leonel Manzano, from Mexico, also are immigrants.
“We have something in common,” Lomong said. “We came different ways, and now America has united us.”
So he will go to the Summer Games in the country whose involvement in the latest humanitarian crisis in Sudan has led many to question why China should be the host of the Summer Games.
Lomong, 23, is a member of Team Darfur, a global coalition of athletes using the focus on the Beijing Olympics to urge China to exert its influence on the Sudanese government to alleviate the suffering in the country’s Darfur region. Sudan uses income from oil sold to China to buy arms, some of which are used by militias that have inflicted terror on Darfur.
“I need to send the message as an athlete from Sudan,” Lomong said. “I am worried about the kids who are dying in Darfur, kids who don’t have the dream they could be good athletes or Olympians or doctors, because they will be running away from their village, separated from their families.”
Lomong, a Boya tribesman, lived those horrors. The only difference from those in Darfur is his came from a civil war between the Arab north and Black African south of the country, where his family farmed and raised cattle in the village of Kimotong.
“Of the more than 2 million people driven from their homes in Darfur, at least one or two could be Olympians,” said Olympic speedskating champion Joey Cheek, president of Team Darfur. “Lopez is clearly proof of that, and, when one reads his story and the many challenges he has faced, I am enormously proud he will represent us in the Olympics.”
These were the challenges, as Lomong recounts them.
He was abducted with 50 others from church at age 6 by a faction that wanted to turn young boys into child soldiers. Escaped through a hole in a fence with three other older boys who carried him on their backs as they walked three days, not knowing they had crossed into Kenya until border police arrested them and sent them to a refugee camp. Spent 10 years in the camp, living on one meal a day, until he learned of a program to resettle 3,500 “Lost Boys of Sudan” into the United States.
“Something came into my mind, ‘Apply to that program,’ because the U.S. is like next to heaven,’ ” Lomong said.
He wrote his life story on the application, telling of the parents and five siblings he thought were dead. After an interview with a U.S. embassy official, Lomong was resettled with a family in New York.
He would go on to Northern Arizona University, reestablish contact with his family, all of them alive. They had thought he was dead, so they held a symbolic burial that Lomong undid ceremonially when he returned to Kimotong last Christmas, after he had become a U.S. citizen.
Lomong learned of the Olympics in the refugee camp, using five shillings -- two U.S. cents -- he was paid for raking dirt to join friends watching the 2000 Summer Games on television. He saw Michael Johnson win the 400 meters.
“He was running so fast, I said, ‘I want to run like that guy,’ ” Lomong said.
On Sunday, Lomong was pleased with a slow 1,500 pace, with Lagat winning in 3 minutes 40.37 seconds and Leonel Manzano grabbing second in 3:40.90. After finishing fifth in the 800, Lomong was nursing a sore left ankle he felt would allow just one big move.
“My leg tried to give up on me with 500 meters to go, and I said, ‘No, don’t do that,’ ” Lomong said.
Lomong happily settled for third in 3:41.0, just ahead of fourth-place finisher William Leer, with erstwhile phenom Alan Webb fifth.
Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.