Beijing: The US team on Thursday chose a former refugee from Sudan to carry the flag at the Olympic opening ceremony, throwing the spotlight on China's much-criticised policy on Darfur.
The decision to nominate Sudan-born 1500m track star Lopez Lomong, a member of the Team Darfur activist group, added a touch of political drama to Friday's ceremony at the "Bird's Nest" Stadium in Beijing.
Coming just days after a visa was revoked for Team Darfur co-founder Joey Cheek to visit China, the decision honours Lomong's heart-tugging tale of escaping conflict in Sudan as a child.
AN HONOUR: Lopez Lomong is a 1500m track star and a member of the Team Darfur activist group.
"It's just a happy day. I don't even have the words to describe how happy I am," Lomong said.
"This is another amazing step for me in celebrating being an American. Seeing my fellow Americans coming behind me and supporting me will be a great honor -- the highest honor."
US captains in every Olympic sport met at the Olympic Village and voted late Wednesday for Lomong, who became a US citizen in July 2007 after being kidnapped from a church aged six and spending 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp.
"This is the most exciting day ever in my life. It's a great honor for me that my teammates chose to vote for me," Lomong said.
Lomong, 23, is a member of Team Darfur, a group of global athletes who seek to raise awareness of the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. He said in July that if he stands on the Olympic podium, his thoughts would be with Sudan's children.
"It will be on my mind because I'm wanting the people's well being," he said. "We need to send the message as athletes that all we want is for kids in Darfur to be safe and reunited with their families.
"All I'm worried about are the kids who are dying in Darfur. The kids don't have the dream they could be Olympic athletes or doctors. I want those kids to reach what their dreams are."
China has close ties with Sudan, as one of the main buyers of the African nation's oil and a key investor in its economy, and rights groups have accused Beijing of not doing enough to try and resolve the conflict in Darfur.
"As athletes we need to send the message to the government not to kill or bomb and to China to stop because those guns are not to defend the country but to kill innocent people," Lomong said in a posting on the Team Darfur website.
"This is the 21st century. We don't want kids growing up in refugee camps like I did."
The United Nations has said that 300,000 people have died in the Darfur region and that more than 2.2 million have been displaced since 2003. The Sudanese government puts the number of fatalities at 10,000.
But much of the rest of Sudan saw years of violence as well, including the troubles that changed Lomong's life.
He was only six when he was among 50 children kidnapped by a militia while at church in his village of Kimotang. He spent three weeks as a captive before three other children helped him escape.
After running three days through the wilderness, evading soldiers and wild animals, they reached Kenya and were sent to a refugee camp.
"Running saved my life," Lomong said.
He famously walked five miles and paid five Kenyan shillings to watch a black and white television telecast of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, saying that seeing US track star Michael Johnson win gold sparked his Olympic dream.
In 2001 he wrote an essay about his story and was among 3,800 youth selected to be sent to US foster families. Last December, he was reunited with his family after 16 years, even visiting the grave they made thinking he was dead.
Now he will carry the banner for his new homeland.
"The American flag means everything in my life -- everything that describes me, coming from another country and going through all of the stages that I have to become a US citizen," Lomong said.
This will be the first international competition for Lomong, who was the last US track and field athlete to qualify for Beijing. He was third in the 1,500m last month on the final day of the US trials.