BEIJING (BP)–Lopez Lomong, the 1,500-meter runner who carried the U.S. flag during the opening ceremony in National Stadium, is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and the providence of God.
Lomong, 23, is one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, a group of 3,800 boys who suffered through genocide in North Africa and were given a second chance at life when they were brought to the United States in 2001.
In 1991, during a Sunday morning worship service at his village in southern Sudan, Lomong was among about 100 children taken by a government-sponsored militia and trucked to a prison camp, as recounted by The Washington Post. One boy after another died as they were fed a porridge of millet mixed with sand.
But three older boys who understood what was going on took Lomong under their wing and helped him survive the death camp and took him along when they made a daring nighttime escape. The four ran for three days and nights, until they arrived at the border and were put in a Kenyan refugee camp. Lomong lived in that camp, where the conditions were only somewhat better than the Sudanese death camp, for 10 years — until he was accepted into the Lost Boys program and given to a foster family in New York.
With his new family, Lomong found himself in an almost alien world. He knew nothing of light switches or flush toilets. As he struggled to adjust to life in the United States, one thing he brought with him from Sudan kept him focused — running. In Sudan, as in many parts of rural Africa, running is the fundamental means of transportation. It’s one reason the continent produces so many great long-distance runners.
Lomong asked his foster father, Robert Rodgers, if he could go out on a 30-kilometer run, the same distance he had run around the refugee camp in Kenya every day. Like most Americans, Rodgers wasn’t sure how far 30 kilometers was, so he called a friend who coached track at a local high school. The coach, Jim Paccia, knew this kid was talking about an 18.6-mile run and he rushed immediately over to Rodgers’ house to recruit Lomong for his cross-country team.
In 2007, as a student at Northern Arizona University, Lomong won 3,000-meter and 1,500-meter championships. He qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in June trials at Eugene, Ore.
He was part of that team when they learned that, at the last minute, Chinese authorities had denied a visa to Joey Cheek, a gold medalist speedskater who carried the U.S. flag during the closing ceremony of the 2006 Winter Games. Cheek later co-founded Team Darfur (www.TeamDarfur.org), an international coalition of athletes who work to raise awareness about and bring an end to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. According to The Post, the Chinese government is sensitive to the Darfur situation because of its partnership role with the Sudanese government in an oil company, PetroChina.
But if denying Cheek’s visa was a ploy to keep the Darfur genocide out of the spotlight, it backfired because the U.S. team had someone who personified the atrocities being committed under the oversight of the Sudanese government. Josh McAdams, an Olympic team member who is blogging about the games from Beijing at flotrack.org, said that everyone who wanted to carry the flag during the opening ceremonies was asked to stand together and take turns explaining why they wanted to be the flag bearer.
“Prior to this I and others had told Lopez we would nominate and vote for him,” McAdams wrote. “I was going to stay up there and say vote for Lopez … but everyone sat down, leaving Lopez up there by himself. How awesome was that!”
Lopez “embodies what our country is about,” McAdams added. “He is a devout Christian who acknowledges that God plays a role in our lives. He is grateful for the experiences he has had. He enjoys every moment out here. He just has an incredible aura about him. I feel privileged to have been able to know him personally on our flights and runs together.”
Lomong recognizes God’s role in bringing him to this point and sees it as a God-given opportunity to make the entire world aware of the crimes being committed against Christians and tribal peoples in southern Sudan.
“When we were in Africa, we didn’t know what was there for us as kids — we just ran,” Lomong wrote on his website, lopezlomong.org. “God was planning all of this stuff for me, and I didn’t know.
“Now I’m using running to get the word out about how horrible things were back in Sudan during the war,” Lomong added. “Sometimes these things are not on CNN, so if I put out the word, I hope people can get the information. Right now, similar terrible things are going on in Darfur; people are running out of Darfur, and I put myself in their shoes.”
Compiled by Mark Kelly, an assistant editor at Baptist Press.