BEIJING: Just a day after four American cyclists apologised for wearing pollution masks on their entry into Beijing, the US team risked upsetting their Chinese hosts again by selecting a refugee from the Darfur conflict to be their flag-bearer at Friday’s opening ceremony.
Sudan-born 1500 metre runner Lopez Lomong will lead the American team into the ‘Bird’s Nest’ Olympic Stadium, having only become a US citizen in July 2007 after being kidnapped aged six and spending 10 years in a refugee camp.
China has close ties with Sudan, as one of the main buyers of the African nation’s oil and a key investor in its economy, and rights groups have accused Beijing of not doing enough to resolve the conflict in Darfur.
Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Washington were strained further by the recent decision of Chinese authorities to prevent US Winter Olympics gold medallist Joey Cheek, a leading advocate for an end to violence in the Sudanese province of Darfur, from travelling to the Games.
“This is another amazing step for me in celebrating being an American. Seeing my fellow Americans coming behind me and supporting me will be a great honour,” Loming said.
As competitors in individual sports pondered the form of their rivals, defending Olympic men’s field hockey champions Australia had a close-up look Thursday at Germany, the team expected to be their main challengers in Beijing.
The Kookaburras defeated Germany 2-1 in a warm-up match in sweltering heat and afterwards star player Jamie Dwyer, one of the Australian goal-scorers, was in no doubt of the result’s significance.
“These training matches have showed we have adjusted better than the Germans and that is a great sign,” he said.
Meanwhile, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge pleaded with leading football clubs to let their stars appear in the Games even though the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled on Wednesday they were not obliged to release them.
“We have to let the players realise their dream just like the basketball players and the tennis players,” Rogge said. “I appeal to the clubs to observe the ‘Olympic truce’ till after the Games.
Someone whose Olympic dream died on Thursday was boxer Frankie Gavin, one of Britain’s best hopes for a gold medal.
The world lightweight champion, a hot favourite for the -60kg title, was ruled out after failing to make the weight.
Terry Edwards, head coach of the British boxing team, said: “Frankie has been working his whole boxing career towards the Olympic Games and he is obviously completely devastated.”
As the smog in the skies above Beijing showed no sign of lifting, the head of the World Health Organisation in China said concerns pollution would affect athletes’ performances had been exaggerated.
“It is a very small risk for visitors from outside and even less so for athletes because they are in very good shape,” Hans Troedsson told AFP.
That’s certainly the case with the huge and hugely popular 7-foot 6-inch basketball star Yao Ming, who was announced on Thursday as China’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.
However, that still left open the intriguing question of whom the Chinese would choose to light the Olympic flame, the symbolic act of the opening ceremony.
Channel News Asia