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Let the games begin

"Let the games begin" Continued...

Issue: "Summer of '68," Aug. 9, 2008

But for all his criticisms, Hoberman is not unlike most Americans: unable to take his eyes off the competition.

On the run for fun

This year's slate of American runners, leapers, and throwers offers plenty worth watching. From sprinters Tyson Gay and Allyson Felix to decathlete Bryan Clay, the chance for U.S. gold is strong. But at least one American athlete on the track will press viewers to ponder more than elite sport. The final 1,500-meter leg of Lopez Lomong's long journey from Sudan to Olympic glory promises to pack all the emotion and memories of his gut-wrenching story into 3½ minutes.

In 1991, a government-backed militia abducted Lomong and other children in the south Sudanese village of Kimotong. Just 6 years old, he remained in custody for three weeks, watching others dying around him of dehydration and disease. Three teenagers who knew Lomong's family helped him escape to a Kenyan refugee camp, where he spent the next 10 years among the "Lost Boys" of Sudan.

In 2001, Lomong wrote a letter detailing his story and plans should he be among the several thousand selected for a resettlement program in America. The letter landed him in the household of an adopted family in upstate New York. Six years later, this past Christmas, having captured three high-school state running titles and an NCAA crown in the 1500, Lomong received assistance from the HBO program Real Sports to return to Sudan and reunite with his biological family.

On July 6, he raced to third in the 1500 meters at the U.S. trials in Eugene, Ore., qualifying for the Olympic team. "I came a long way, for sure," he said, "from running through the wilderness to save my life, and now I am doing this for fun."

Team effort

American speed skater Joey Cheek is heading to Beijing for the Olympic Games this month. But he isn't confused about the season-nor is he mistaken in donning the colors of Team Darfur. Everything Cheek has done since winning an Olympic gold medal in Turin, Italy, two years ago has smacked of intentionality-the more than $1 million raised from fellow athletes, the creation of a multinational nonprofit, the open letter to the Chinese government, and now the call for an Olympic truce in Darfur.

With almost 400 world-class athletes behind him, 72 of whom are competing in Beijing, Cheek intends to parlay every last bit of international attention surrounding the Olympic Games into greater awareness and action against the genocide in Western Sudan. Many of the athletes connected to his Team Darfur organization plan to speak out in Beijing, calling on China to suspend all weapons trade with Sudan, rescind interest-free loans, suspend debt forgiveness, and use its large oil investments to pressure the government in Khartoum to disarm militias and adhere to ceasefire agreements.

Such demands are unlikely to engender much movement on the part of the Chinese government, but Cheek is optimistic that his efforts will kick-start broader international pressure on China. He's likewise hopeful about his group's proposal that the Sudanese government and rebel groups honor a longstanding tradition of laying down arms during Olympic competition. "Despite the fact that this may be a bit of a long shot, I think there's some chance, and I think it's something worth fighting for," he said. "To me, nothing seems more fitting and more of an ideal way to live up to the potential of the Olympic Games."

Cheek is sensitive to the reality that for many athletes, competing in the Games is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. He does not view Olympic competition as solely political. Nor would he shame any athlete for declining to speak out on political issues. Even some members of Team Darfur, while happy to let the group use their names, have no plans to address Chinese connections with Sudan in interviews or press conferences.

For those athletes who do plan to make political comments, Team Darfur is careful to avoid anything that might violate IOC rules or codes of conduct. "We tell the athletes, 'You've spent your whole career doing this. We are the last people who want you to jeopardize that by breaking a rule or wearing something that you're not allowed to,'" Cheek said. Restrictions on organized dissent could prove prohibitive as the Beijing Olympic organizing committee has recently established protest zones several miles away from any athletic venues.

Still, Tracy Mattes, a former hurdler and modern pentathlete traveling to Beijing with Team Darfur, views the Games in China as an opportunity to effect change, not a misguided gift to a reprehensible government. "All the talk about boycott, that's never the answer," she said. "The whole concept behind the Games is to bring people together. That's the idea behind the Olympic truce, that people would lay down their weapons and battle it out on a playfield."

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