BEIJING When U.S. athletes chose Sudanese-born Lopez Lomong as their flag bearer, 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,” he said, 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 and turned into a soldier, Lomong is one of the “lost boys' who escaped, walked to Kenya 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 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 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 after his July6 selection.
Asked Friday about human rights in China and Beijing's support for Sudan's 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 avoided any direct criticism of Beijing, saying only that: “Chinese people have been great putting all these things together. It's great being here.”
He won a vote of team captains Wednesday to lead America's athletes into the 91,000-seat Bird's Nest Stadium.
U.S. captains said Lomong deserved the honor because of the overwhelming pride he took in gaining U.S. citizenship. He 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. I'm very excited,” he said.