East Timor: an Olympic journey

By Barry Neild
DILI, May 30 AFP - On a rough pasture tended byscrawny goats, Aguida Amaral pounds the dirt track shehopes will lead her from East Timor to Athens as thefirst ever Olympic contestant to compete for herSoutheast Asian homeland.
Wearing cheap red sneakers and a vest bearing theone-word plea, sponsor'', she finishes off hergruelling twice-daily 15 kilometre run with a tortuousseries of stretches before heading home to look afterher four children. It is a long way to Athens from this impoverishedfield of dreams near Dili, but compared with thegold-driven operations of rival nations, East Timor'smakeshift athletics camp sweats raw Olympic spirit. The target of getting a medal is still far away, buteach time we will compete, we will get better, and forus taking part is what it is all about,’’ said assistantcoach Antonio Soares, checking Amaral’s times on hisstopwatch.
Soares will help decide if Amaral, among the formerPortuguese colony’s top four long-distance runners, willtake one of two marathon places which will be thecountry’s only shots at Olympic glory when it debuts inAugust.
Although Amaral, 32, competed at the Sydney Games in2000, placing 43rd, she did so under the flag of theUnited Nations, which took control of East Timor after abloody 1999 referendum prompted separation fromIndonesia.
The raising of East Timor’s colours at Athens willmark one of the proudest moments yet for the desperatelypoor nation, still struggling to find its feet aftertaking full independence in May 2002.
Participating for the first time on our own in thebiggest sporting even in the world will be an historicmoment, and there is a lot of excitement in thecountry,'' said East Timor Sports Association presidentJoao Carrascalao. While global aid donors and relief agencies haverallied in support of the infant nation, which stillbears the scars of its long independence struggle,Carrascalao says sport could be East Timor's lastingsalvation. Sport has a very important role to play.Unemployment is high and the population is young, butsport can help mould our future society, bring us intocontact with the world and give us a good environment.
We inherited a passion for soccer from thePortuguese, elite sports such as tennis are breakingthrough and there is still a big martial arts elementfrom the days of occupation but we want to get it acrossthat this should be an art and not an instrument ofattack.'' Carrascalao, himself a former basketball and footballchamp, admits that his country faces a marathon effortto reach international sporting standards but hisrunners' journey to Greece this summer will be thebeginning. It needs a lot of patience, work and money and atthe moment we simply do not have the funds. But webelieve by the time of the Beijing Games in 2008 we willhave a much better level of participation.’’
Heavily reliant on International Olympic Committeehelp and support from neighbour Australia, almost all ofCarrascalao’s budget for this year’s games has beensplashed on smart new outfits for the team, which willalso include non-competing weightlifting and boxingentries.
But though the odds are against East Timor taking aplace on the podium, the country’s sportsmanship andsheer determination are at least guaranteed to win a fewhearts.
``We have many problems training with poor facilitiesand bad nutrition, but we have enormous spirit,’’ saidAmaral.