Southern cities adopt, pamper foreign Olympic teams Malawian runners get tour of Wal-Mart

July 05, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Some will run with Nike on their chest. When the greatest distance runners in the world cross the finish line in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, television cameras will record not only the pure joy and intense agony of their effort but also the brand of their corporate sponsor.

It will be much the same -- but not quite -- when Henry Moyo and John Mwathiwa, distance runners from the impoverished African nation of Malawi, cross the finish line.

On their backs they will carry the hopes and dreams of their nation. But on their chests will be a small patch with the words "Hattiesburg Convention and Visitors Bureau."

The Malawian runners, along with others in their tiny delegation, have been adopted by the city of Hattiesburg and many of its 70,000 people. The two runners came here last month in ragged shoes. They did not have gear in which to train or uniforms in which to compete. But in Atlanta they will run in the latest footwear and the newest of uniforms, which are still being sewn.

Hattiesburg, about 100 miles north of New Orleans, cares for the runners' every need. They sleep and eat at the University of Southern Mississippi campus and train at the university's athletic center.

They are chauffeured around the city by volunteers -- they were late for a recent newspaper interview because they were engrossed in a sightseeing tour of the electronics department of the local Wal-Mart -- and are regularly invited to picnics and class reunions.

"We may not want to go home," said Albert Ndarama, secretary general of the Malawi Olympic Committee.

Several cities around the United States, particularly in the South, are hosts to foreign athletes, borrowing a little Olympic glory in exchange for hospitality.

LaGrange, Ga., about 60 miles southwest of Atlanta, is the host of several Olympic teams from Africa, the Middle East and Europe. And soccer players from around the world will train in Birmingham, Ala.

Hattiesburg courted teams to train, citing as one of its attributes the fact that its climate is similar to Atlanta's: hot and steamy.

The third team to train in Mississippi, from Equatorial Guinea in West Africa, has not even arrived, but the Baptist Young Women's Association at Oak Hill Baptist Church has already adopted its athletes.

Pub Date: 7/05/96

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