Sydney: East Timor's tiny team of athletes may huddle over their radiators on chilly spring nights, but their reception at the Olympics could not be warmer.Just existing is an achievement. Being here is a triumph for a quartet who lost all their belongings and training equipment in the conflict that ravaged their homeland and left it in ruins.
The athletes -- two marathon runners, a boxer and a weightlifter -- will have a place of honour in Friday's opening ceremony. They will enter the stadium just ahead of the Australian host team.One year after their country voted to end more than 23 years of Indonesian rule, this is a richly symbolic moment to savour.
Team leader Frank Fowlie will be a proud man when the team steps into the stadium. "It's one way of declaring a form of nationhood. Taking your place among the other 199 nations," he said.For the athletes are trying to put behind them the nightmares of the past.
Boxer Victor Ramos, recalling the upheaval that nearly cost him his life, told CNN, "I was scared to death because the militia was looking for me. My name was on the list of people to be killed. We had no choice but to flee into the mountains."
"They came looking for me and when they couldn't find me, they killed my friend instead."In the Sydney athletes village, the East Timorese team crouched over heaters trying to keep warm. Olympic chief Juan Antonio Samaranch, a great believer in the political healing powers of sport, gave them a warm welcome.
"The first night was a shock. It was the coldest the athletes have felt. But they are enjoying it, especially all the food," team leader Fowlie said.
Boxer Ramos, weightlifter Martinho de Araujo and marathon runners Calisto Da Costa and Aguida Amaral have been racing against time to get fit for the greatest sporting challenge of their lives against a background of conflict and hardship.
They arrived in poor health and desperately short of training when Australia's Institute of Sport stepped in to help them.
Back home, the marathon runners had trained barefoot and the weightlifters used tree branches to practice with.
Now they are all doing personal bests and the institute admits it ran out of time trying to improve them even further.
It is only the second time independent athletes have been allowed to compete in a modern Olympics -- a Yugoslav squad was the first in 1992.
East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and annexed the following year in a move never recognised by the United Nations.
It is now under temporary UN control and the United Nations said in July that elections and possibly final independence could come by the end of 2001.
(c) Reuters Limited.