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East Timorese show world 'our spirit, our bravery'

By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 16, 2000


SYDNEY, Australia -- So this is what the rest of the world looks like. It is bright, colorful, wonderful. If you could see it through the weightlifter's eyes, it would look something like magic.

Martinho de Araujo, a small man on a big stage, danced through the Olympic Stadium, spinning and waving and kissing and skipping and laughing. It was a night unlike any he had known, beyond his hopes, beyond his imagination.

The dark past was forgotten, and the murky future was a million miles away. This was the night de Araujo joined the rest of the world at play, amid the fireworks and the fire-eaters, the athletes and the acrobats, the floating fish and the flights of fancy.

By the time he stepped onto the track, most of the rest of the athletes from the rest of the nations were in the center of the field, watching his joy overflow. Some athletes marched. Some ambled. But underneath the shining lights and the swirling colors, de Aurajo positively boogied.

It was against this backdrop of dreams that the reality of the tiny, tattered nation of East Timor introduced itself to the world. That was when de Araujo and three of his countrymen joined the grand parade known as the march of athletes in Friday's Opening Ceremonies for the Olympics, a journey that will help to heal a scarred nation that looked on.

The athletes moved around the track, emotion spilling out of them. They wore white uniforms because the nation of East Timor will not be recognized by the United Nations until next year. They marched under the flag of the International Olympic Committee, their anonymity separating them from any possible political message.

But inside, they were East Timorese.

And they were here.

And wasn't it wonderful?

"We want to show the people our spirit, our bravery, the strength we carry in us," de Araujo said. "We want them to know of East Timor."

Just over a year ago, almost no one had heard of East Timor, an island of 800,000 just above Australia. After a quarter-century of Indonesian rule, East Timor declared its independence. Indonesian militia responded violently, destroying three-quarters of the city of Dili. Torture, deaths and disease followed.

In the middle of the devastation, however, there was determination. Despite the wounds of their country, despite the problems that linger, the athletes found a way to return to their training.

For de Aurajo, a weightlifter, it meant finding two empty paint cans. He ran a steel rod between them, then filled them with cement. That became his barbell. He removed a cog wheel from a truck transmission and used it as a weight plate. He lifted bricks, boards, whatever he could.

For Aguida Amaral, a marathoner, it meant training barefoot and pregnant. When the violence broke out, Amaral took her two children and fled. When she returned, her running shoes had been burned. So she ran barefoot, or in street shoes, across the broken streets of Dili. When she became pregnant with her third child, she ran still.

For Victor Ramos, a boxer, it meant training without gloves. He would take discarded inner tubes and fill them with sand, then use them as a heavy bag while bare-knuckled. That came only after Ramos fled to the forest, carrying a bag of rice over one shoulder. There, his family lived in makeshift tents of leaves. There, he was married to another refugee a year ago.

Stories such as these are the finest part of the Olympics. Amid millionaire athletes, drug cheats and corrupt officials, the four athletes marched, bearing a purity of athleticism that should be celebrated.

"These guys don't have $5 in their pocket," said Frank Fowlie, a former Canadian Mountie who has become the team leader. "Some of them had never seen an airplane. Some of them may not have hot running water. No one speaks their language, so they can't even go over to athletes from South Africa or Kenya and strike up a conversation.

"But this is the greatest good-news story of them all. They're here to represent hope. They're here to represent perseverance. They're here to represent their country on a world stage as equals."

Pity the other athletes. All they can win is medals and money. These four have something better.

Consider what the night was like in East Timor, when a large television screen was rolled into a simple church hall in Dili so townspeople could crowd inside to watch their countrymen walk alongside the world. Today, videotapes will be dispatched to the outer regions so more people will be able to see the four who made it to the rest of the world.

"In all, I'd say 80 percent of the people will hear about it or watch it," Fowlie said. "It's history. It's like they're the first four astronauts from their country."

When de Araujo talks of his homeland, his chest swells, and his smile becomes as wide as his face, and he seems to stand taller. He is a dark-skinned Asian, 27, with a wife and four children. He is a teacher, but he has not had a job in a year. For money, his family wraps snacks and tries to sell them. It is a world far away from this one. Still, de Aurajo is proud to travel from one to the other.

"I could never have dreamed of this," he said. "When this is over, I do not know what will happen. I do not know if there will be a job. I would not ask someone to give me a job just because I am an Olympian. It is very sad what has happened in my country. But I am glad to be here. When I wave, it is not just for Australia. It is for all of East Timor."

Fowlie shook his head. "When they get back, their lives will be changed, but I don't know if they will be better. Their homes won't be transformed into three-story mansions. But people will know who they are."

Already people have learned. There is something basic, something honorable in their story that makes others want to share in it. The other day, an envelope arrived with a $100 contribution in it. Nothing else. Amaral now has shoes. Ramos has boxing equipment. And the athletes have uniforms.

You wonder. If our country was ravaged, would Michael Johnson have found a way here? Stacy Dragila? Alonzo Mourning? Anyone? Is the strength in the Timorese athletes somewhere inside all of us? You hope so. And you hope you never have to find out.

This moment belonged to the Timorese. They danced around the track, bobbing and weaving, and stepping and smiling, and blowing kisses. They looked out at the large, limitless, glittering world. And the world looked back at the proud, resilient, joyous Timorese.

If this is what East Timor has to offer, you thought, then eventually it will be a fine place indeed.

Olympics 2000

WHERE: Sydney, Australia.

TV: 4:30-6 p.m., 7 p.m.-midnight, 12:30-2 a.m., Ch. 8; 10 a.m.-4 p.m., MSNBC; 4-9 p.m., CNBC.

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