Subject: AP: East Timor looks for Olympic recognition this year


East Timor looks for Olympic recognition this year Thu May 23, 8:41 PM ET


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - It's been only a few days since East Timor (news - web sites) celebrated its independence, but the island's sports leaders are already looking ahead to the 2004 Athens Olympics.

After a long history of brutal oppression by foreign occupiers, East Timor became the world's newest independent nation early Monday in a joyful ceremony in the capital, Dili.

Among those attending were three Australian members of an International Olympic Committee (news - web sites) delegation assigned with helping East Timor set up its own national Olympic body and develop athletes to compete in Athens.

On Thursday, East Timor's sports chief was in Kuala Lumpur meeting with IOC president Jacques Rogge and other officials and observing the general assembly of the world's 199 national Olympic committees.

"It's a great feeling for me to come here and feel welcome by everyone, a feeling I cannot describe," said Joao Carrascalao.

After East Timor voted for independence in 1999, the IOC acted swiftly to allow a mainly symbolic four-member team take part in the 2000 Sydney Games (news - web sites) under the Olympic flag as "Independent Olympic Athletes."

Now that East Timor is fully independent, it can seek IOC recognition as the world's 200th national Olympic committee and send athletes to Athens as part of an East Timor team.

IOC vice president Kevan Gosper, who headed the delegation at the independence ceremony, said he expects East Timor to meet the requirements for recognition in time for the IOC executive board's meeting in August in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Official recognition could then be granted at the full IOC general assembly in Mexico City in November.

"The desire is to give them their status in the year of independence," Gosper said. "So far, everything is falling into place."

Gosper, who was accompanied by Australian Olympic Committee chief John Coats and Australian swimmer Susie O'Neill (news - web sites) in Dili, said the IOC has provided just under dlrs 100,000 so far to help East Timor.

The money was used to send athletes to Sydney, refurbish damaged sports facilities and organize a festival of 17 sports in the leadup to independence.

Once East Timor wins formal acceptance from the IOC, it will have to decide whether to join the Asia or Oceania regional Olympic body. While East Timor is in southeast Asia, it has close ties with Australia.

First, East Timor must win affiliation with at least five international sports federations. Carrascalao said agreement has already been reached with karate and applications filed with athletics, soccer, basketball, volleyball and cycling.

Carrascalao said he expects seven or eight athletes to compete in Athens, citing likely entries in athletics, particularly the marathon. Other possible sports include taekwondo, boxing, weightlifting and tennis.

Carrascalao said 65 percent of East Timor's population of 800,000 is under 25 and many are avid about sports. A number of East Timor athletes won medals in a recent regional competition in Darwin, Australia.

"We are still two years away from Athens and I believe we can improve the standards," Carrascalao said.

It won't be easy. During 24 years of Indonesian occupation, all sports facilities were destroyed, he said. East Timor's sports program has started "from scratch, completely from zero" since the independence vote three years ago.

"At a very early stage we had support of the IOC and the enthusiasm of the East Timor people," Carrascalao said. "The raw material we have is people, sports-loving people.

"With this, we started from nothing. We didn't even know where to go. But we managed to participate in the Sydney Olympics (news - web sites ), something we will never forget. One of the proudest moments of my life was when East Timor athletes walked into the stadium in Sydney. Everybody was standing — a very, very big ovation.

"That's something that will be an important landmark in the history of East Timor," he said, "as important as being independent."

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