Lomong, Team USA make statement ... without making a statement
BEIJING -- He flashed a gap-toothed smile and told his story again to the masses. And then Lopez Lomong managed somehow to escape.
Peppered with questions about human rights, politics and statements, Lomong carefully stuck to what Olympic officials wanted to hear Friday, that he was proud to be the flag bearer for the United States. He didn't bite when asked about China's support of the current Sudanese government. Maybe he didn't think he had to.
Despite all the politically correct answers floating around the main press center in the hours before the opening ceremonies, one thing remained certain -- on Friday night, a Sudanese-born runner would lead the United States out on the world's biggest stage.
"I hope I'm here to inspire other kids who are out there watching these Olympics," Lomong said, "as I did watching the Sydney Olympics. I hope ... all the countries and all the nations are there watching and they will learn from where I came from and things like that."
Lomong was 6 years old when he fled Sudan and was separated from his family. He spent 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp, surviving on one meal a day. In 2000, he walked five miles to watch the Sydney Olympics on a black-and-white TV and was captivated by Michael Johnson. From that day on, he wanted to be an Olympian. He came to the United States in 2001, became a citizen last summer and qualified for the 1,500 meters in July.
When he boarded a plane for China last week, he told a handful of his peers, "Man, I would like to be the one carrying that flag." On Wednesday night, when team captains from each sport met in the village -- some in person, some by conference call -- Lomong was selected.
Wrestling captain T.C. Dantzler said the athletes voted with paper ballots. Dantzler didn't know Lomong's story until the nominating process began Wednesday night.
"America is based upon immigrants," Dantzler said. "That's what our country is built on, survival and fighting. He was the best ambassador to carry the flag and represent the United States.
Lomong has become an inspiration in some unlikely places. Earlier Friday, he sat in the green room and chatted with millionaire members of the U.S. men's basketball team. Guard Chris Paul said the players mugged for pictures with Lomong and laughed when Lomong said he was a big Carmelo Anthony fan.
"Melo really ate that up," Paul said.
"He told us his story, and it's unbelievable. We are honored to have him carry the flag. To hear all the different things that he went through, to get this opportunity is unbelievable. I think some of those things, we take for granted."
It was a victory of sorts for Team Darfur. The group -- an international coalition of athletes committed to raising awareness about Darfur, a war-torn region of Sudan -- couldn't have its founder, Joey Cheek, at the Games. Cheek was told earlier this week that his visa had been revoked by the Chinese government. But it had one of its members carrying the flag in front of the world Friday night.
"To see Lopez Lomong carry the flag into the Opening Ceremonies makes me proud to be an Olympian, and that the American team captains selected him reflects so much of what I love about the Olympic Spirit and Olympians," Cheek said in a statement released by Team Darfur late Friday. "Lopez, of course, is the one who made it. There are hundreds of thousands of children in Sudan now whose lives have been torn apart by violence and who continue to be terrorized by militias.
"They are urgently in need the aid of the international community, and those countries that have the ability to help bring an end the conflict -- including China, which has significant financial ties to the Sudanese government -- must do so. No one should have to go through what Lopez went through."
Many of Lomong's other supporters will watch from a distance. Last year, he bought his parents a TV and told them to watch him in Beijing. He didn't know for sure, then, that he'd be here.
Or that he'd be out in front, leading everyone.
"Not for one moment did I think it was a political statement," said Mark Lopez, a member of the U.S. taekwondo team. "We had a great opportunity to meet him in Colorado in our last training camp, and we feel it's a great choice by the U.S. delegation.
"His story alone just represents the epitome of the American dream, and it's something the whole world should look at and read about and view as an inspirational story. We're very proud to follow him at the Opening Ceremonies."
Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.