Subject: Tiny East Timor faces huge hurdles on road to Beijing Olympics

Tiny East Timor faces huge hurdles on road to Beijing Olympics

DILI (AFP) ­ Domingos Sarmento Soares slams balls over the net on one of East Timor's few tennis courts, a 29-year-old citizen of Asia's youngest country he has most things he needs to train to compete in wheelchair tennis at the Beijing Paralympics -- except the wheelchair itself.

Soares' battered regular chair is not up to the task, leaving him to borrow a too-small chair donated to a female fellow athlete by Australia, or simply go without.

"There's only one wheelchair so we can't do daily training," Soares says.

"When we play in China we'll borrow one more there."

With only six years of independence under its belt, the tiny but proud nation of East Timor is preparing to send a small cohort of Olympians and Paralympians to carry the flag in Beijing.

But severe shortages of money, facilities and equipment, as well as infighting among sports associations, means East Timor faces more obstacles than most in achieving its Olympic dream.

East Timor won independence in a 1999 referendum that ended 24 years of brutal military rule by neighbouring giant Indonesia.

The country remains one the world's poorest, with 50 percent unemployment and a government that relies on international aid, police and troops to stay on its feet.

East Timor's challenges mean little is left for sport, says Joao Carrascalao, the head of Timor's Olympic committee.

The country plans to send two marathon runners -- Antonio Ramos and Mariana Diaz Ximenez -- to August's Olympics as well as 11 paralympians in the marathon, weightlifting, table tennis and wheelchair tennis events, Carrascalao says.

"In all the other sports we cannot qualify to participate in Beijing. Sport is not a priority for the government of East Timor and our infrastructure is non-existent," he says.

"We don't have any hope of winning the marathon, but to finish the marathon is already an achievement," he says. "We don't have facilities in East Timor to train for the marathon, but you can train on the road."

With its team together, East Timor is now looking for money to send the athletes to Beijing. With the government unwilling to foot the bill, the Olympic committee is looking for foreign sponsors, with no luck yet.

The situation is not being helped by perpetual feuds that have poisoned relationships between East Timor's sports associations.

Carrascalao is barely on speaking terms with the heads of East Timor's weightlifting, athletics, boxing and football associations.

The associations accuse Carrascalao of a lack of disclosure about the Olympic committee's bank account, which only he has access to. Carrascalao accuses the associations of trying to defraud the committee of money.

"That's the reason they don't accept my leadership, because I don't give them any chance to pocket money," Carrascalao says.

A former rival of Carrascalao, Paralympic association head Juliao Soares da Silva, says he's put the feud to the side for the sake of developing East Timorese sport.

"When else is sport going to progress here, now that we have become a nation? When East Timor was still a province of Indonesia it wasn't as stormy as now," he says in his Dili home as the champions of his other sporting passion, cockfighting, crow outside.

"We have to wake up first, we don't have to scream to the world 'oh, Joao Carrascalao this and Joao Carrascalao that'. We have to prove first that we have the capability," he says.

While the leaders argue, East Timor's athletes train with what they have.

In a pink-walled shed in Dili's dusty backblocks, East Timor's three Paralympic weightlifters train beneath posters of American pro-wrestlers and Chinese soap stars.

Domingos Freitas, who volunteers to train the weightlifters, says the preparation for Beijing is being done without standard competition equipment, including the leg straps to tie the disabled athletes to the weight benches.

"Here in East Timor, for training, there's only the weights that we can buy from hotels," Freitas says.

While the difficulties faced by East Timorese athletes have much to do with the ravages of Indonesian rule, the Olympic hopefuls, like most East Timorese, have little hatred towards their erstwhile occupier.

Wheelchair tennis player Soares says his own sporting career was launched with the help of occupying Indonesian soldiers who played on the tennis court opposite his school.

At first Soares, who was disabled by a childhood illness, was paid by the soldiers to collect balls. Later one of the soldiers took Soares under his wing.

"He taught me at that time how I could play. I couldn't see any disabled people that could play tennis, but at that time I would play against able-bodied people," Soares says.

Taken to Indonesia proper, Soares competed in and won championships against other disabled players right up to the 1999 referendum.

Unable to return immediately as militias rampaged through Dili, Soares eventually came home to a capital gutted by the violence.

Despite the destruction, he says, "I had to return to put my enthusiasm behind disabled sport in East Timor.

"I'm not angry because I'm grateful to Indonesia. If not for Indonesia we wouldn't be able to play disabled tennis in East Timor," he says.


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