LONDON — Four years ago, Lopez Lomong was as much a symbol as he was an athlete running in the Olympics.
The symbolic part will always be there. As soon as the 2012 OIympics end, Lomong will go back to the land he fled, a land now recognized as the independent nation of South Sudan, trying to give its people some of the indomitable hope that carried him through a childhood odyssey filled with terror and misery.
When he went on the Olympic Stadium track Wednesday in the semifinals of the 5,000 meters, Lomong wanted to be a runner.
"I'm here to do what I could not in Beijing," Lomong said, "to put everything out there for this great country and bring back a medal."
He had been chosen U.S. flag bearer for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics. That gave Lomong the chance to tell his story to the world, a story now retold in a new book, "Running For My Life: One Lost Boy's Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games."
Coach Mike Krzyzewski asked him to tell the U.S. basketball team what it meant to be an American. Lomong was shocked by seeing the NBA stars go quiet as he began to talk.
"I have never won anything," he told them. "I don't have any credentials. But the American people welcomed me with open arms."
Lomong ran the 1,500 at the 2008 Olympics with by hamstring issues he did not talk about. He ran well in the first round, then finished far back in the semifinals.
"Now I know what it takes to be on that podium," Lomong said.
His times suggest how unlikely it would be for him to get there. Eight people in his semifinal heat had run faster this season than Lomong's career personal best. Making the Saturday final was far from assured, but he did it Wednesday with a fourth place in a semfinal when the five automatic qualifiers were separated by less than a second.
"Once I line up with people, I don't see their personal best," he said. "It is about who can be good that day."
Lomong, 27, already has made a mockery of what seems likely in life.
The most recent example came last December, when he carried the standard of his class at Northern Arizona University's commencement ceremony. The boy who had spent years at school in refugee camps had become a man with a college degree.
"I can do anything as long as I am safe and not running from people that were going to hurt me or kill me," he said.
At age 6, he was abducted with 50 others from a church in what then was the southern part of the Sudan. A faction in the country's civil war wanted to turn young boys into child soldiers. He escaped through a hole in a fence with three 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. They were sent to a refugee camp.
He spent a decade in the camp, living on one meal a day, until he learned of a program to resettle 3,500 "Lost Boys of Sudan" to the U.S. At 16, he wound up with a couple in upstate New York whom he calls parents, just like the parents whom Lomong happily discovered were still alive years after he fled. They also thought he was dead.
"I thought I would spend my life helping boys in the camp," he said.
A year after becoming a U.S. citizen, Lomong made the Beijing Olympic team.
"Carrying the flag, he finally felt a true sense of identity," said Brittany Morreale, his girlfriend of four years. "He felt like he had been fully embraced by the people of the United States. It gives him more confidence on the track."
Morreale, 24, is an Air Force Academy graduate, first lieutenant and Rhodes Scholar. She just finished two years at Oxford, writing a master's thesis titled, "Historical and Anthropological Perspectives of Traditional Authority in South Sudan."
They met in 2008 when he followed his coach to Air Force, where Morreale was on the track team. She would join him and a friend in founding the Lopez Lomong Foundation, which is focusing energies on clean water and health care in a program called "4 South Sudan."
"Doing good things for people in South Sudan is really his focus," Morreale said.
Many young girls in the country still walk 10 to 15 miles a day to get water for their families. They could spend that time in school if there were more wells.
"My sister was raped while trying to find clean water," he said. "I don't want any girl to go through what she did."
Such things make running seem of little consequence. Yet running is what has given him a voice.
"It's no longer just me," he said. "When I run, I represent refugees everywhere. Now I am running for joy."
Twitter @olyphilCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun