Team Darfur member chosen to carry U.S. flag
By Janice Lloyd and Dick Patrick, USA TODAY
BEIJING — Lopez Lomong, a Lost Boy of the Sudan and a member of Team Darfur, was selected Thursday (Beijing time) as flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic team in Friday's opening ceremonies — the same day winter Olympian Joey Cheek had his visa revoked by China because of his prominent role with Team Darfur. Cheek, a 2006 gold medal-winning speedskater who expected to arrive in Beijing today, is angry that the Chinese government is taking this "effort to suppress discussion about human rights."
He was happy about Lomong's selection but said it had no bearing on his situation. Lomong, 23, a 1,500-meter runner, was born in Sudan and driven from his family after a rebel attack. After escaping from a rebel camp at 6, he spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya before arriving in Tully, N.Y., and becoming a citizen a year ago. "His selection is a statement to how moving his story is," Cheek said. "The fact that he survived these tragedies is an amazing story."
Cheek is co-founder of Team Darfur. He had planned to attend the Games to support the 70-plus athletes who will be competing in Beijing who have signed onto Team Darfur. The group is critical of the Chinese government's funding of the Sudanese regime responsible for the genocide in Darfur.
"We've been hearing from athletes for several months that they would have extra screening in Beijing if they didn't distance themselves from us," said Cheek. "It sounds like some sort of harassment."
Cheek is less concerned about not going to the Olympics than he is about "the muzzling of athletes" who are competing. "I really hope the International Olympic Committee will make all efforts to protect competing athletes and their right to be able to speak about this or any issue they consider to be relevant," he said.
USOC officials are staying out of the dispute. "We think it is unfortunate," Jim Scherr, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said, adding Cheek wasn't part of the U.S. delegation. "But that's between this government and Joey as a private citizen trying to make his way to these Games."
It's unclear what, if anything, Lomong may say at a Friday press conference about the situation in Darfur, a western area of Sudan. Lomong called the honor "the most exciting day ever in my life. The American flag means everything in my life — everything that describes me, coming from another country and going through all the stages that I have to become a U.S. citizen."
Lomong first became aware of the Olympics in 2000 when he walked about five miles from the camp in Kenya and spent his meager earnings of a few cents from a landscaping job to pay to watch the Sydney Olympics on TV. Lomong's reaction to the spectacle and watching 400 champ Michael Johnson of the USA: "I'd like to run like that guy."
But not even four-time Olympic champion Johnson got to carry the flag.
Four American track cyclists who arrived at Beijing airport wearing respiratory face masks have apologized to the Organizing Committee for any embarrassment the action may have caused.
"They were a little bit overly cautious when they went through the airport. Those athletes regret that action and have written an apology to BOCOG on their own behalf," said Scherr. "They now realize and understand how their actions were perceived by the host nation."
Air pollution in the Chinese capital has been a major concern in the months leading up to the Games, and the Chinese government recently closed factories and restricted traffic to improve the air quality.
Images of the American athletes arriving Tuesday night with black masks covering their mouths and noses were prominent on the Internet Wednesday. Their arrival came hours after Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee medical commission, said the improved air quality would not pose a major risk for athletes or visitors.
The four athletes — Mike Friedman, Sarah Hammer, Bobby Lea and Jennie Reed — issued the apology after speaking with USOC Chief of Sport Performance Steve Roush.
"You never want to go to somebody else's place and cause any embarrassment and in this case, I think we did a little bit," USOC Chairman Peter Ueberroth said.
Ueberroth said U.S. officials would not prohibit athletes from wearing masks if they felt it was needed.
Contributing: Mike Dodd
© Copyright 2008 USA TODAY
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