Monday, August 11, 2008

The Man Who Led Our Olympic Team

Los Angeles Times, August 9, 2008

This article is from TIA Daily • August 10, 2008 • If you choose, subscribe here.
Thanks, Mr. Tracinski, for this inspiring article. I recommend following the links he included as they flesh out the story. The ones about Mr. Lomong are all inspiring.

Who We Are
Lopez Lomong Represents America
by Robert Tracinski

Amid the gargantuan spectacle of Friday's opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, there was a much smaller detail that really caught my attention: the story of the man whom the US delegation chose as its flag-bearer for the Parade of Nations.
I don't begrudge the Chinese their desire to put on a spectacular display. China has achieved a remarkable transformation in the past 30 years, raising itself up from the abject poverty of a nation brutalized by its Communist dictators, to become one of the world's fastest-growing economies with an increasingly vibrant culture.

And I was particularly encouraged by the way in which China chose to celebrate its moment at the center of the world's attention. Like most Olympic opening ceremonies, it was a sprawling event without much in the way of a connected narrative, but it seemed to be mostly built around two themes. The first theme was the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China: paper, moveable type, gunpowder (represented by fireworks, of course), and the compass. The second theme was China's openness to the rest of the world, a theme emphasized when the ceremony's pantomimed overview of Chinese history skipped forward from the silk road and the 15th-century sea voyages of explorer Zheng He to the opening up of China to the global economy in 1978—skipping pretty much everything in between, including Mao Tse Tung and Communism. This is perhaps no surprise, when you consider the background of the ceremony's director, filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who as a young man suffered through the lost decade of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

My impression is that the people of China are not eager to remember the horrors of Mao's rule, because they are looking forward to the better life they are beginning to enjoy. And China's rulers are not eager to remind their subjects of that history, because it does not reflect well on the moral legitimacy of the Communist Party.

So the upshot of the opening ceremony could be boiled down to: China wants to be a thriving part of the world again. It was as good a message as you could expect.

Yet there is a contradiction behind that message, and America sent its own messenger to remind the world of this fact.

The Chinese people as a whole are no doubt sincere in the aspirations they projected at the opening ceremonies. But the relationship of China's rulers to the world is not nearly as benevolent. China's government has maintained what one analyst calls a Zombie Empire of failed and dying dictatorships. Like the zombies of folklore, these states are kept in a state of artificial animation by Chinese support—in exchange for doing China's bidding. And one of the zombies in China's empire is Sudan, which has been shunned by every other civilized nation for its complicity in mass murder and war crimes in its province of Darfur.

That is why the US Olympic team made such a profound statement by choosing as its flag-bearer the middle-distance runner Lopez Lomong. China made its statement to the world last Friday with masses of people—2,008 drummers, 2,008 Tai Chi masters, and so on—while America answered it, quietly, with a single individual.

Lomong's story is a both heartbreaking and inspirational. He was one of the famous "Lost Boys of Sudan." Stolen from his family by Sudanese Muslims as part of their war against Christians and animists in Southern Sudan, he was taken to what was basically a death camp for children—if you can imagine such a thing, which I hope you can't. With the help of some older boys from his village, he escaped and ran for many miles to a refugee camp in Kenya, where he lived in squalor for ten years until he was brought to the US by an American charity.

This is the bare outline of a story that is told movingly in Lomong's own words and in many other reports in the past few weeks (see here and here especially).

It is a story full of details no one would dare to make up in a Hollywood movie—like this one, from a Washington Post report: Once, in Kenya, he was given five shillings for watering cows. It was his only money but he never spent it, keeping it for the right moment. He heard others talking about the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and how, on the only TV set in the area, five miles away, they might watch it. So Lomong and friends walked five miles to the black-and-white TV only to find out that, for each event you watched, you had to pay—five shillings.

That day, Lopez Lomong saw sprinter Michael Johnson run and win, stand on the podium in a US uniform and cry as his anthem was played. "I want to run as fast as that guy," Lomong says he thought. "And I want to wear that same uniform."

What stands out most from the story is Lomong's gratitude to and love for America. Lomong became a US citizen last year and told reporters, "Now I'm not just one of the 'Lost Boys.' I'm an American." The Lost Boy has been found. "Before, I ran from danger and death," he says. "Now, I run for sport. It would be an honor to represent the country that saved me and showed me the way." And describing what it means to him to carry his new country's flag, Lomong says, "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 US citizen. This is another amazing step for me in celebrating being an American."

If you want to know why Lomong loves America so much, check out a terrific interview with his foster parents, Robert and Barbara Rogers.

There has been some discussion about whether athletes at the Olympics should try to make some kind of political statement about causes like Darfur or Tibet or China's record on individual rights. But Lomong makes the most effective statement of all. He makes a statement just by being who he is—and by what he implies about who we are as Americans.

An estimated four billion people watched the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, and in every broadcast in every country around the world, the broadcasters would have had to explain, as Lomong led the American delegation into the stadium, who this person was, why America is represented by a young black man from Sudan, and how it is that in America a lost and penniless refugee can become an elite athlete who is chosen by his peers to represent, as one athlete put it, "the epitome of the American dream."

It is a story that says everything about the freedom and opportunity we enjoy in America, and about the benevolence and generosity that follow from it. And one could not imagine a more pointed or effective contrast to the policies of China's rulers.

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