KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A world away from the political rows over China and the Olympic Games, a young Darfuri man crouches down at the start of a cracked and pitted running track in the capital of Sudan.
He is Nagmeldin Ali Abubakr, a 21-year-old from Nyala in southern Darfur, and one of Sudan’s main medal hopes for the Beijing Games.
Western celebrities and activists have been pushing for Olympic boycotts and protests against China for its alleged failure to press Sudan to end more than five years of killing in Darfur, as well as over its human rights record in Tibet.
But Ali and a small group of other Darfuri athletes are focusing on their training and hoping the run-up to the Games will go as smoothly as possible.
“I have heard some stories. But they don’t really concern me,” said Ali, taking a break from training in his country’s half-built athletics stadium, made of crumbling concrete blocks still spiked with metal construction rods. “We are all Sudanese and I am running for Sudan.”
The only thing on Ali’s mind right now, he says, is the 16 weeks of training ahead of him before he gets to meet the world’s best 400 meter runners in Beijing’s gleaming new ‘bird’s nest’ National Stadium in August.
Ali, a sergeant with the Sudanese army who was born in Khartoum, refuses to be drawn further into the Darfur Olympics controversy.
His British-Somali trainer Jamo Aden is less cautious. “I think it is ridiculous what these people are doing,” he said, referring to the Olympic protesters.
“They say they are doing it for the people of Darfur. They think it is only about war and genocide. But they don’t realize that if they damage these Games, they are going to be hurting Darfuris, running to support themselves and their families.”
Seven Sudanese athletes have so far qualified for the Olympics but Aden is still hoping to build up the team to 12. “Race or tribe means nothing here on the running track. By the end of it we will have people from all over Sudan.”
Ali’s family is from Darfur’s Zaghawa tribe. Ismael Ahmed Ismael, an 800 meter finalist in the 2004 Athens Olympics, is a member of Darfur’s Fur tribe.
Members of both groups took part in the anti-government uprising in 2003 that sparked the current Darfur conflict. Both groups also have a long history of fighting each other.
International experts estimate 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million been driven from their homes in the past five years. Sudan’s government countered the 2003 revolt with men and air power and by arming local militia which are accused of targeting civilians by burning villages, pillaging, killing and rape.
Washington calls the violence genocide; Sudan rejects the term and puts the death toll at 9,000, accusing Western media of exaggerating the conflict.
Abubaker Kaki Khamis, the Olympic team’s outstanding figure who came from nowhere in early March to win the world 800 meter indoor championship, comes from a region bordering Darfur.
Members of his Misseriya tribe have been caught up in a string of clashes in recent months with troops from Sudan’s semi-autonomous south — the same area from which many of his fellow athletes come.
The team gathers before dawn every morning in a dusty compound a few blocks away from the running track and sets off for a couple of hours running around southern Khartoum.
Training pauses as afternoon temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). But by 5 p.m. they are back at the track, watched by an audience of ragged street children who turn up for an evening’s entertainment.
Few other people pay attention to the athletes in Sudan, a country that has yet to win an Olympic medal and is still obsessed with soccer despite the poor performance of its team in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations.
“No one has heard of us. The only sport that people know here is football,” said Nasir Bilal, a 20-year-old who is hoping to run the Olympic marathon. “But that is going to change.”
Athletics gets next to no media coverage in Africa’s largest country and very little government funding, say people close to the team.
While athletes from Sudan’s neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia sign up lucrative sponsorship deals, many of Sudan’s best performers run in training gear donated by a British charity.
Every evening, after the sun goes down, the athletes head back to their training camp to build up their strength with weights made of concrete blocks stuck on the end of metal poles.
Much of their transport and training costs are being covered by donations from the British embassy in Khartoum in a project spearheaded by its defense attaché John Rollins, an athletics enthusiast whose two young daughters compete in Britain.
“Sudan’s already got some world class athletes here. All they need is a bit more support,” said Rollins.
“In a few years, Sudan is going to be on a par with Kenya and Ethiopia as a running nation. It is not going to encroach on their turf because the runners are competing in a different set of events. It is mostly 400 meters and 800 meters.”
Another British link is Sudan’s 400 meter contender Rabah Yusuf, who splits his time between Khartoum and married life in the English town of Middlesbrough.
The 21-year-old from Bor in southern Sudan had a shock when he first arrived in Britain as a student.
“In Britain they’ve got everything. Anyone can get up to a reasonable standard, even if they haven’t got much athletic ability, just because you’ve got all the equipment and facilities laid out for you. Here you have to really work for it.”
He, too, shrugs off the political controversy over the Games, saying he has little time to think of anything beyond the relentless training program ahead of him.
“Whatever is happening in Darfur, we are still Sudanese and we are representing our country.”
Editing by Mark Trevelyan.