Friday, June 18, 2010

Timor Marathon hits world sport calendar

By Matt Crook

DILI — With the world's attention locked on the World Cup in South Africa, it might be an odd time for East Timor to try to boost its international profile with a simple foot-race.
But that's what President Jose Ramos-Horta is hoping to do with the Timor Marathon on June 20, billed as the climax of events to mark the fledgling nation's eighth anniversary of independence from Indonesia.
Five hundred runners including 300 foreigners have already registered, but few will compete with more pride than national sports heroine Aguida Amaral.
The 36-year-old former refugee is one of only a handful of Timorese athletes to ever make it to the Olympics, having run in Sydney in 2000 and Athens four years later.
"I want to offer motivation to the young Timorese. At my age, if I can still compete with others, (it) means young Timorese can also do that," she told AFP after a morning training session with the national marathon squad.
In one of the highlights of the Sydney Olympics, Amaral stopped near the finish line without realizing she had another lap to go. After a nudge from a track official, the former police officer completed the final circuit to a standing ovation.
Ten years later she?s helping the next generation of Timorese athletes stride towards their own Olympic moments, despite chronic shortages of coaches, facilities, competition and almost everything else an athlete needs.
"This kind of event is really important for the future of young Timorese in this country," said the mother-of-five, who trained barefoot for the Sydney Games until Australia bought her a pair of running shoes.
East Timor remains dependent on international aid more than a decade after it voted to split from Indonesia and end 24 years of brutal military rule from Jakarta.
But the East Timorese are optimistic for the future of their resource-rich half-island state, none more so than Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Ramos-Horta, who is convinced that international sport can lift his country's spirits and raise its standing in the world.
The "marathon for peace", as he calls it, is Ramos-Horta's latest sporting brainchild after last year's inaugural Tour de Timor cycle race and an international fishing competition.
It's all part of a plan to "build bridges through sports, to build peace in the country, to build fraternity between this country, our people and peoples around the world", he said in a statement.
"The Marathon for Peace will be a landmark event for Timor-Leste and a great personal challenge for all who participate," he added, using his country's formal name.
One of the young athletes under Amaral?s wing is 20-year-old Agusto Ramos Soares, who dominated a field of 350 runners to win the first Dili Half-Marathon in a snatch under 68 minutes earlier this year.
"I think that (the international competitors) will bring us new experiences and they'll gain a better understanding about my country," said Soares, who has previously represented his country at the Southeast Asian Games.
Stephen Jackson, director of the Sydney Olympic Marathon, has checked that the course meets international standards and believes East Timor has what it takes to organise a first-class event.
The course will take runners past many of Dili?s highlights, including ramshackle villages, the government palace, the city?s beachfront and a lighthouse.
"As an experienced marathon runner, I would like to add that the course is delightful. It is scenic with gentle rolling hills and will lend itself to the best performances possible in the tropics," Jackson said.