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Olympics 2000
East Timor boxer's early loss doesn't deter quest on home front

Monday, September 18, 2000

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

SYDNEY, Australia -- When Victor Ramos fled to the hills of East Timor in September 1999, deep into the tropical vegetation that he prayed would protect him from the militia that wanted him dead, he had to travel light.

He collected his wife and children, slung a sack of rice over his shoulder and ran. Everything else he left behind in his modest home in Dili, East Timor's capital.

After a month of living in a lean-to constructed of palm leaves, Ramos thought it safe to emerge from the wilderness.

He understood that a United Nations peacekeeping force had stemmed the violence that had killed hundreds of people since East Timor voted to become independent of Indonesia on Aug. 30, 1999, but the soldiers hadn't put Dili together again. The pro-Indonesia militias had burned the government buildings, destroyed most of the private homes and looted everything.

When Ramos returned to what was left of his house, two charred, frayed ribbons that had held boxing medals hung on the wall. The medals were gone.

Ramos won't bring home an Olympic medal to fill that empty space. He lost in the first round of the 60-kilogram boxing tournament, giving up 15 points so quickly that the fight ended early in the second of four scheduled rounds. The official results say, "Referee stopped contest -- outclassed."

This perhaps is the ultimate instance in which the box score doesn't tell the entire story.

Ramos and three other athletes are competing in the Olympic Games as International Olympic Athletes because East Timor is not yet an official country and doesn't have a National Olympic Committee.

They marched in the opening ceremonies behind the Olympic flag, wearing plain white uniforms, and they are not permitted to talk about anything political because they do not, technically, represent a particular nation.

They are really East Timorese, however, and they are giving the half-million-plus people who live on a Connecticut-sized part of an island between Australia and Indonesia reason to celebrate for the first time in a long while.

"You're American," said Frank Fowlie, the Canadian-born team leader of the International Olympic Athletes. "Do you remember the names of the first astronauts on the moon? These are the first people to go to the Olympics. They will be heroes."

Immediately after his loss, like any serious athlete, Ramos wasn't ready to think about the greater implications of his Olympic experience.

"I feel a bit sad about what happened today," he said through a translator in Tetum, East Timor's official language. "I don't feel good at all about it -- it just stopped."

Although he didn't display particularly polished boxing techniques during his match, Ramos is more than a random East Timorese selected to make a statement on a world-wide stage.

He won a silver medal at the 1997 Southeast Asia Games while competing for Indonesia, which has considered East Timor its 27th province since a bloody invasion in 1976. He began his boxing career in 1985. "I like hard fights; that's why I'm in it," he said. He improved so quickly when he entered a formal training program that he was invited to Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, to train.

Life was good, and Ramos, 30, was one of Indonesia's more noted athletes, but when the rumblings for independence got louder in East Timor and the date for an independence referendum was chosen, Ramos decided he needed to return home.

Ignoring orders from his coach, he sneaked away to Dili, where he spent the three months before the election teaching people how to vote. That caught the attention of the militias, whom pro-Indonesian forces apparently funded to intimidate the East Timorese before the election. Ramos believed his name was on a hit list.

The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of independence; 98 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, and 78.5 percent voted to break from Indonesia. The news frustrated the militias, who reacted violently and quickly.

Ramos wasn't the only person who headed for the hills. Refugees groups have estimated that as many as 500,000 people were displaced, half by choice, half by force.

When Ramos returned, he found a job as a security guard for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor for $144 a month, which fed his family but left nothing for training.

His boxing gloves, too, had disappeared in the rampage, but he didn't quit. He filled discarded inner tubes with sand to make a heavy bag, which he punched with his bare hands.

East Timor moved on, too, as well as it could with the sporadic outbreaks of violence and deteriorating conditions in refugee camps. Then Fowlie, a Canadian Mountie turned U.N. worker, arrived in January and began putting together a sports program as an outlet for the East Timorese.

Fowlie contacted the IOC to find information about forming an Olympic committee so East Timor could compete in 2004 in Athens, when East Timor will officially be a country. After lobbying from Australia (which led the peacekeeping force), Portugal (which ruled East Timor for 450 years until 1976, when it got rid of its colonies) and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Fowlie got word in May that East Timorese athletes would be permitted to compete as individuals.

Previously, such an exception was made only for the 1992 Barcelona Games. Then, it was for Yugoslavian and Macedonian athletes. The uniqueness of the situation has given the East Timorese delegation -- nine people, including support staff from other countries -- an exceptionally high profile.

The Individual Olympic Athletes received a standing ovation when they entered Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremonies. Ramos, the flagbearer, led the group, beaming as his teammates danced around the track behind him.

"I felt happy to carry the Olympic flag, but I carried my nation and my flag in my heart," he said.

Through the Olympic Solidarity program, which provides athletes from impoverished countries with funds for equipment and training, Ramos and eight other athletes were able to go to the Northern Territory Institute of Sport in Darwin, Northern Australia, and train with real equipment under real coaches for two months before the Games.

It wasn't enough time considering Ramos had stopped training for more than six months while he worked for independence, hid from the militias and began rebuilding his life.

"I know the preparation for the Olympic Games takes more than one year," he said. "I've only had two months of preparation. They were good preparations, but they were not completed."

Ramos will remain in the Olympic Village until the Games end, and he will march in the closing ceremonies. He and the other East Timorese will return Oct. 3 to Dali, where Fowlie expects several thousand cheering people to meet them after their U.N. flight home.

Ramos will resume his security guard job and continue putting his life back together. "I feel secure there now," he said. "I'm not afraid to walk around the streets and do whatever."

The Olympic experience has presented only one unfortunate moment for Ramos. In each match, one boxer wears red and the other wears blue, and Ramos drew to wear the red and white -- the national colors of Indonesia.

Asked about the irony, Ramos laughed and ignored that IOC rule banning political statements.

"I don't know, but that might be why I lost, for wearing those colors," he said.



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