BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States chose former Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong to carry their flag at Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony in a move that could embarrass Sudan and its ally China.
Lomong, who spent 10 years in a refugee camp after fleeing his native Sudan as a child, was given the honor after a vote by the team captains of the entire U.S. Olympic squad.
“This is the most exciting day ever in my life,” Lomong said in a statement by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) on Wednesday.
“It is a great honor for me that my team mates chose to vote for me. The opening ceremony is the best day and the best moment of Olympic life,” added the 23-year-old, who will race in the 1,500 meters.
Lomong fled on foot from rampaging government-sponsored Arab militias in southern Sudan at the age of six in 1991, becoming separated from his parents.
His escape took place during the height of a civil war between Sudan’s Muslim, Arab north and its Christian and animist south.
He eventually reached Kenya where he lived in a refugee camp for 10 years, the USOC said.
Along with thousands of similar children, known as “the Lost Boys of Sudan”, he was eventually resettled in the United States and became a U.S. citizen in July 2007.
“I’m here as an ambassador of my country and I will do everything I can to represent my country well,” Lomong said.
“This is another amazing step for me in celebrating being an American.”
Lomong will be one of three foreign-born athletes representing the U.S. in the 1,500 meters.
World champion Bernard Lagat, who won Olympic silver and bronze in the event for Kenya, and Leonel Manzano, who grew up in Mexico, complete the lineup.
While Lomong will no doubt be concentrating on trying to win his race, his selection is likely to provoke extensive debate about China’s relations with Sudan.
China is a major investor in the Sudanese oil industry and sells arms to Khartoum. Critics say self-interest has led China to shield the Sudanese government from pressure over the conflict in the western region of Darfur.
Some 200,000 people have died and an estimated 2.5 million been made homeless in five years of conflict in Darfur, according to international experts.
Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.
Human rights campaigners are believed to be planning to highlight the plight of Darfur in the run-up to Friday’s opening ceremony.
The United States said on Wednesday it would protest to China over its decision to revoke the visa of Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek, an activist on Darfur.
Speedskater Cheek is co-founder of Team Darfur, an international coalition of athletes campaign to draw world attention to the humanitarian crisis there.
(Additional reporting by Simon Denyer; editing by Keith Weir)
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