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African Relay Team Holding Out Hope

September 6, 2000

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) _ With little money and little time, the 400-meter relay team from strife-torn Sierra Leone took a financial gamble for a chance to run at the Olympics.

The foursome _ Francis Keita, Alia Kamara, Joslyn Thomas and Sanusi Turay _ paid their way from their training base in London to Australia, looking to meet the qualifying time of 40.00 seconds for the games.

They came close last week, running 40.2 seconds in Adelaide, then ran 40.37 in a meet at Nudgee College Sunday. The team from the West African nation will try again Friday in the Brisbane 2000 International at QEII Stadium.

If unsuccessful again, they’ll give it another shot Sunday at a meet at Runaway Bay Super Sports Center, and finally at a last-chance meet in Sydney next week.

``We paid our way because we think we can make the Olympic final,″ Keita, who injured a side muscle during Sunday’s race, said Wednesday. ``Last Olympics, we made the semifinals, just missing the final by one place.″

The relay team’s tale is far from an uncommon one in struggling African nations such as Sierra Leone, which has been wracked by a nine-year civil war.

World heptathlon champion Eunice Barber is a native of Sierra Leone but now competes for France.

``She experienced the same problems we are going through now with our officials,″ Turay said. ``That was her reason for not wanting to compete for Sierra Leone anymore.″

The relay team’s quest and plight have intrigued Australians, some of whom have come forth to help.

One is Dennis Ried, who works for a dump truck company. He heard their story on TV and called the station to find a way to get in touch with the runners.

He gave them $500 and paid for a rented car. He also found a trainer and arranged for a shoe company to provide them with running gear.

``Their government is not helping them out as much as they should,″ Ried said. ``Here, some people are helping them over the hurdles so they can do their job.″

Further assistance has come from a hotel owner who is giving the runners free accommodations and meals.

More than 20 others offered free room and board, including Nudgee College, Keita said.

``We have received more than 100 calls for help with everything,″ he said.

Keita and Turay said Sierra Leone’s national organizing committee told the team to go to Australia on its own money to try and qualify and they would be reimbursed.

First, the group flew into Sydney, then went to the team’s training camp in Adelaide. There, it was windy and cold, so they flew back to Sydney and then into Brisbane, where they arrived last week.

``They said they would pay our way and now they refuse to reimburse us,″ Turay, the training partner of 1992 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Linford Christie of Britain, said. ``We asked them to support us, but they’ve abandoned us.″

He also said Sierra Leone officials, particularly chef de mission V.B. Sualloy, who has been in Sydney for more than a week, have not returned a series of phone calls.

``They blatantly refuse to talk to use,″ Turay said. ``We’ve left messages and they won’t call back. It makes me very, very angry.″

He said the relay team was so desperate that it even asked International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch for help.

``The Olympics are about athletes, not officials,″ Turay said, noting that Sierra Leone would have seven officials at the games and six athletes _ ``if we make it.″

``There is no information from officials,″ Keita said. ``It’s like they care more about themselves coming to the games than they do about the athletes.″

Turay called the trip to Australia ``a bit scary, a bit daunting.″

``I’ve never had to face anything like this in my life,″ he said. ``When we came to Brisbane, we were stressed. Now, the pressure has eased up a little.″

That’s because of the generosity of the Australian people.

The team is well-experienced, with Turay having competed since 1991, and is serious about running in the games.

``This is not a joke,″ Turay said. ``This is not for fun. We just want to compete.″

They have a personal best of 38.91 set in 1996.

The only two athletes currently on the Sierra Leone Olympic team are young sprinter Alpha Kamara, no relation to Alia, and a women’s 100-meter runner.

All four members of the relay squad have personal bests superior to Alpha Kamara’s, but they were still snubbed by selectors.

They have sent an airline ticket to Alpha Kamara at Sydney’s athletes village in hopes that he can join them in time for Friday’s meet as a replacement for Keita.

``We will qualify as long as we can get someone that can take the baton around, without being slow or injured _ the rest of us will do the work,″ said Turay, who has a 100-meter best of 10.17.

``We’ve never run slower than 39.8 before. I think a lot of the things we are going through are down to stress and pressure.″

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