They march in white

2000-09-09 16:18

Sydney, Australia - They will stand out because of where they march and what they wear, all in white and identified only as international athletes.

Back home, where it's no longer possible or even safe to train, the people of East Timor will know who they are and where they come from. And every step taken by these four competitors from the world's newest nation will be followed by other athletes.

"These four athletes are seen as big heroes," said Frank Fowlie, the leader of the team without a country about to make a historic debut on the world's biggest stage.

Marathon runners Aguida Amaral and Calisto Da Costa, weightlifter Martinho De Araujo and boxer Victor Ramos will march into Sydney's Olympic Stadium in Friday's opening ceremony as anonymous as can be. Because East Timor lacks a national Olympic committee, it can't send a team to the games.

But in recognition of the bravery and sacrifices the athletes made through last year's unrest following East Timor's independence vote, the International Olympic Committee agreed to allow a small group from the island that gained independence from Indonesia last year to compete in Sydney.

The athletes, accompanied by four coaches, will march ahead of the host nation under the Olympic flag, a white banner with five interlocked rings. Their uniforms will be all white, and their affiliation will be officially listed as IOA รป International Olympic Athlete.

It's the second time this has happened. In 1992, the IOC made similar provisions for athletes from Yugoslavia, then banned from most international activities because of the war in Bosnia.

Fowlie said on Saturday that officials were trying to complete a TV deal so people in Dili, the East Timor capital, could watch the ceremony and some of the Olympic action.

"I think it's probably going to viewed as the biggest story of the last 14 months there," he said. "The athletes are going to be seen as doing something that is very, very important and happy."

The Australian Olympic Association has played host to the East Timorese in Darwin for the past two months, where they have trained away from the dangers at home. East Timor has calmed down under United Nations protection, while violence involving militias opposed to independence from Indonesia has moved to West Timor.

Fowlie said the athletes probably know little of what is going on back home, since there is no news media in Australia that works in their language.

"They are here to compete," he said. "They are here as individual athletes at the games." - Sapa-AP