BEIJING - Just when it seemed that nothing good could pierce the gloomy, gray haze that stifles this city, just when the U.S. Olympic Committee set the bar of foolishness and political expediency higher than any gold medalist will ever jump, a story comes along to remind the world that the Olympics still have great redemptive power.
The captains of the U.S. teams participating in the Beijing Games yesterday chose 1,500-meter runner Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese refugee who was abducted from his church at age 6 and targeted for a life as a child soldier, to carry the American flag into the opening ceremony tomorrow.
Early in the day, the USOC had all but disowned Olympic speedskating champion Joey Cheek, who had his visa revoked by Chinese officials and will be unable to attend the Games. Cheek does human-rights work with a Save Darfur group.
With one noble gesture, the rank-and-file members of the U.S. team put the USOC to shame, asking Lomong - a member of the Team Darfur athletes' coalition - to lead them onto the field tomorrow.
This soft-spoken 23-year-old who made the U.S. team by finishing third in the 1,500 meters at the Olympic trials on a sore ankle knows what it means to struggle.
"This is the most exciting day ever in my life," Lomong said in a statement released by the USOC yesterday.
"It's a great honor for me that my teammates chose to vote for me. The opening ceremony is the best day and the best moment of Olympic life. I'm here as an ambassador of my country, and I will do everything I can to represent my country well."
Lomong grew up in poverty in southeastern Sudan and was torn from his family by militiamen intent on forcing him into the country's north-south civil war. He and three other boys escaped and walked for three days, unknowingly crossing the border into Kenya. There, they were arrested and thrown into a refugee camp, where he spent 10 years.
Watching the 2000 Sydney Olympics on a black-and-white TV, he was entranced by the spectacle of Michael Johnson winning the 400 meters and vowing to someday run like "that guy."
A program that found homes for the so-called "Lost Boys of Sudan" became his salvation. Thanks to a heartfelt essay he wrote in 2001, he was chosen to live with a foster family in Tully, N.Y., about 20 miles south of Syracuse. There, he could eat more than one meal a day and also feed his soul.
Lomong said, "The American flag means everything in my life - everything that describes me, coming from another country and going through all of the stages that I have to become a U.S. citizen."