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Lost Boy's True Olympic Moment: Carrying U.S. Flag

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Lost Boy's True Olympic Moment: Carrying U.S. Flag

Lost Boy's True Olympic Moment: Carrying U.S. Flag

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On this formal opening day at the Beijing Olympics, at least for a few hours, talk of pollution and political dissent will give way to a highly produced spectacle. It's at the national stadium, nicknamed The Bird's Nest. One of the highlights is the traditional parade of nations, where the athletes march in, led by their country's flag-bearers. That moment will be particularly meaningful for the middle-distance runner chosen to carry the U.S. flag. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Sometimes, it's hard to cut through the Olympic hype, the TV coverage with swelling music and stirring stories, to find what games organizers like to call a true Olympic moment, one that embodies hardship, and triumph, and humanity, all through the prism of sport.

It appears the Beijing Olympics have found that moment in Lopez Lomong. The 23-year-old native of Sudan, now a citizen of the U.S., was chosen by his teammates to carry the flag. Today, he struggled to describe what the moment will mean.

Mr. LOPEZ LOMONG (United States Flag-Bearer, Beijing Olympics): I'm looking forward for tonight and go out there and, you know, represent my country and raise that flag and just proudly - I mean, I don't have a word for it. I'm just so happy, very happy.

GOLDMAN: Here's why. Seventeen years ago, when he was six, Lopez Lomong was kidnapped by rebels looking for child soldiers to fight in Sudan's civil war. Lomong's captors, he says, fed the children millet mixed with sand.

Mr. LOMONG: The more you get the food, you know, it would not digest in your stomach and automatically would kill you. So there were a lot of kids dying, like every day.

GOLDMAN: Three friends, Lomong calls them angels, told him not to eat a lot of the food. Then one night, they grabbed six-year-old Lomong and escaped. They ran for three days. With no idea of where they were, Lomong says the took great care to position themselves at the end of each day.

Mr. LOMONG: When we are sleeping, we are to sleep facing where we need to go, you know, the next day because we didn't want to go like maybe around in circles and maybe go where the soldiers are.

GOLDMAN: Finally, they made it to Kenya. Lomong was taken to a refugee camp in northern Kenya, where he spent the next 10 years, often eating one meal a day.

In 2000, the first of two critical events that propelled him to a startling new life. One day, he walked five miles with friends to watch a broadcast of the Sydney Olympics. He saw U.S. track star Michael Johnson win a gold medal. Lomong said to himself, I want to be as fast as that guy, and I want to wear that same uniform.

In 2001, he was chosen for relocation to the United States through the help of a relief organization. Bob and Barbara Rogers of Tully, New York, became the foster parents of now-16-year-old Lopez Lomong.

Mr. LOMONG: My parents took a lot of time, and you know, to really teach me again, like you know, a little kid, and how to take a shower with the cold water and the hot water, and how to put in the middle, that it's…

GOLDMAN: He learned how to shower, how to speak English and how to be a good runner, becoming an NCAA track champion. On July 6th of last year, he became a U.S. citizen. On July 6th of this year, he made the U.S. Olympic team.

Now he'll compete in China, a country that supports the Sudanese government, which is blamed for the civil war that uprooted thousands of so-called lost boys of Sudan like Lopez Lomong.

At today's press conference, Lomong, a member of the athletes' activist group called Team Darfur, avoided criticizing the host country. He chose, instead, to tell his story, including how he reunited last year with his original family in Sudan and how they went to the grave his parents had dug for him and dug it back up.

Mr. LOMONG: You know, I went out there in December, and we did all those things, and I'm alive again.

GOLDMAN: Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing.

(Soundbite of music)

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