Athletes from ravaged East Timor near finish line

Olympic dreams weren't allowed to die

September 10, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SYDNEY, Australia - She's the marathoner on a long journey to the Olympics, running for nearly a year without proper shoes because they were burned by rampaging militiamen, keeping alive a flickering dream by jogging barefoot on soft sand through East Timor's scorched landscape.

And then, in June, an International Olympic Committee vice president named Kevan Gosper traveled from Australia to the ravaged capital of Dili, taking along a red felt pen he used to trace the racer's foot on a piece of paper and vowing to send her a new pair of running shoes to take her to the Games.

Now, Aguida Amaral is here, with shoes and a place in an Olympic parade of nations as one of four athletes from East Timor.

"I know that if I try hard I'll get to the finish line," says Amaral, an elfin marathoner with darting eyes and a bright smile.

Amaral is more than a 3-hour-plus marathoner; she is a survivor of the violence that engulfed East Timor after the territory voted for independence from Indonesia last year. Pro-Indonesia militiamen devastated the area before United Nations forces restored peace last September.

The athletes' appearance here is a genuine Olympic story, all about perseverance and the cooperation between nations and sporting bureaucrats.

"Normally, things take a long time, but now and again, even the International Olympic Committee can move quite quickly," Gosper told waiting reporters when the athletes arrived in Sydney on Thursday. He added, "It just seemed this is good. grass-roots Olympic activity, and they're a neighbor country who have been through a huge trauma."

The athletes - two marathoners, a boxer, and a weightlifter - are here as individuals, representing themselves, and not a country, because East Timor is under U.N. administration. They'll wear white uniforms and march in the athletes' parade behind the flag of the International Olympic Committee. They've signed agreements to steer clear of politics.

No one expects them to win medals, but that's not the point.

When the militiamen ran wild in East Timor - which was part of Indonesia for 24 years, and a colony of Portugal for more than four centuries - they didn't just loot offices and burn homes: They torched nearly everything in their path.

For a month, the athletes hid or stayed away from their homes. When they returned, they found all their sports equipment was gone.

They're competitors such as Martinho De Araujo, a wisp of a weight lifter, who found his barbells smashed. He started training with a bar wedged into old paint cans filled with concrete. He even hoisted an old wheel that came off a truck transmission.

The boxer named Victor Ramos fled to the hills with his family and hid for a month, sleeping in tents made from leaves. He was married in a ceremony that had 20,000 other refugees as witnesses. When he returned to Dili, his equipment was gone. So the U.N. security guard jogged, shadow-boxed, and made a heavy punching bag out of an old inner tube filled with sand and hung it from a tree.

Calisto Da Costa, another marathoner, was luckier than most. He was in Jakarta when the violence broke out. He also held out hope that the United Nations would find a way to get him to the Games. "I knew I was getting support from Mr. Kofi Annan [U.N. secretary-general] to be in the Olympics under the flag of the IOC," he said.

Others were pitching in, too, as the athletes trained in a wrecked area behind U.N. headquarters. Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta called for the athletes to be allowed into the Olympics. Government and athletic officials from Australia took an interest; so did the IOC, the Portuguese government, and an Australian college professor named Bill Buckley who heard of their plight and began quietly collecting boxing equipment for Ramos.

"There are a lot of people around the world who put a lot of time and effort to make the process happen," says Frank Fowlie, a former Canadian Mountie who is part of the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor.

"None of these kids has a chance at a medal," Fowlie says. "But they're going to go home the richest athletes in what they've been able to accomplish here. The support given to them is incredible."

They're preparing for Friday's opening ceremony. Fowlie says they've got to decide who will carry a flag.

Before the weekend, the athletes weren't even clear where they would march in the parade of nations.

They'll go second to last, a few strides ahead of Australia, hearing cheers from a crowd of more than 100,000 people.

"Nameless, faceless people who will all be thrilled for these individuals who have made it," Fowlie says.

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