Subject: In Paula's race, but from a very different world

Independent (UK)

In Paula's race, but from a very different world By Simon Turnbull in Athens

22 August 2004

Outside the Olympic Village on the northern outskirts of Athens, the early morning queue of visitors is steadily growing. Near the front are three young women carrying little cases. If you look closely at their black tee-shirts you can see the initials "WADA" and the legend "win pure". These are the ladies from the World Anti-Doping Agency, the testers who have had Konstantinos Kenteris and Katerina Thanou so famously on the run.

Not far behind them is Gary Lough - husband, manager, training partner and mentor of Paula Radcliffe. The sight of a member of the British press corps about to follow him into the village is probably not what he wants to see, having gone to great lengths to shield his other half from media attention leading up to her date with destiny on the road from Marathon to the Panathinaiko Stadium today.

But it is not the fastest entrant in the women's marathon field that The Independent on Sunday has come to see. It is the slowest.

Beyond the check-point, in the café in the international zone, Agueda Amaral is already waiting. There is not much of her, just 4ft 11in, but her big brown eyes, her huge smile and her sunny disposition more than make up for any lack of physical presence. Her best time in 21 marathons is 3hr 3min 53sec. So how does it feel for her to be running against a woman who has run the 26 miles 385 yards of the marathon distance in 2:15.25 - to run against the great Paula Radcliffe.

Amaral gives a shrug of the shoulders and the smile turns to a frown. "Who?" she enquires. "I don't know the name.

"You say she has run a marathon in two hours 15 minutes?" she adds, her face a mixture of bemusement and wonder. "That is very quick. Very quick."

Jordao Henrique, an official with the two-strong Olympic team from Timor-Leste, leans forward and interjects. "You must understand that football is the only famous sport in East Timor," he says. "Athletics, we know very little about."

"I have heard of Carl Lewis," Amaral adds. "The American."

Four years ago in Sydney, Amaral stepped on to the Olympic stage that was once graced by the American sprinter. Her country was newly independent and still recovering from the genocidal ravages wrought by Indonesian militia in 1999. A quarter of Timor's population was wiped out.

Amaral competed in Sydney in the white vest of the International Olympic Committee, stopping as soon as she reached Stadium Australia and bending to kiss the track. Officials had to kneel down and tell her to complete a lap of the arena.

She laughs with embarrassment at the memory. "Nobody told me before the race that I had to run around the track," she says.

Amaral was 43rd of 45 finishers in the 2000 Olympic women's marathon. She eventually crossed the finish line in 3:10.55, to be greeted by a rapturous reception. And rightly so.

When the Indonesian militia went on the rampage, Amaral fled to the mountains from her home in Dili, the Timorese capital. It was reported when she ran in Sydney that she and her children had been separated from her husband and had lived in a refugee camp, sleeping next to a dirt road.

"That is not true," she says. "We lived in the mountains until the killings stopped. My husband, Antonio, was with me and with my children, Oirsia, Dahlia and Sanora. I was pregnant with our little boy, Ronaldo. He is four now."

When the family returned to Dili their home had been ransacked and Amaral's running shoes were missing. "I started running when I got back from the mountains," she reflects. "I had to go barefoot. I had no shoes."

When she ran in Sydney, nobody back home could share in her three hours of fame. "There was no electricity," Henrique says. "There were not many televisions, but nobody could watch anyway. It will be different this time."

Four years on, life is sweeter for the 32-year-old Amaral and for her compatriots. She works as a security officer at the Timorese government's headquarters and trains with the Tacil Tolu Sports Field Club in Dili.

At the Opening Ceremony in Athens eight days ago, it was she who carried the Timor-Leste flag. "It was a proud, proud moment for me," she says. She does not, however, know which colours she will be wearing as the first official Timorese competitor at an Olympic Games.

"Ah," Henrique says, raising an index finger. "That is a problem. Agueda has brought an orange vest to run in. Gil da Cruz Trinidade, who runs in the men's marathon next week, has brought a green vest.

"The International Olympic Committee have given us two days to sort out the problem. The trouble is we don't have a team uniform with a badge, like the other countries."

It is impossible not to laugh. No slight is intended. It is simply refreshing to have the over-hyped world of high pressure sport reduced to the basics of a schools' sports day.

"Sport in East Timor is not like sport in America, Australia, Britain," Henrique says, wrongly detecting an insult. "People do not go to sport to get money. My people go to sport to fight with their heart."

And long may they do so. Forget all about Konstantinos Kenteris and Katerina Thanou and their whole Greek farce. Strip behind the rotten veneer that has been applied to these Athenian Olympic Games and you will find such gleaming sources of inspiration as the 4ft 11in Timor woman who will be somewhere in Radcliffe's wake tonight.

She will also, of course, be treading in the historical foosteps of Pheidippedes and Spiridon Louis on the road from Marathon to Athens. Agueda Amaral shrugs her slender shoulders once again.

"Spiridon who?" she says. Like the long-distance deeds of Radcliffe, news of the original Olympic marathon has yet to reach Timor, evidently.


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