Hope-But Not of Gold

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It's the closest thing to a certainty in these Olympics: when Ekundayo Williams crosses the finish line in her 100-m heat Friday, she'll be 5 m behind the winner. If the winner happens to be one of the event's speed queens, Marion Jones or Inger Miller, the gap could be as much as 10 m. Williams' personal best time is 11.91 sec., slower than every 100-m champion in Olympic history save Betty Robinson, who won gold in Amsterdam in 1928 in just her fourth track meet.

Plainly, Williams, 22, is out of her depth. She won't get near the final, and for some, that marks her as inconsequential. But this is where the Olympic ideal lives: in the noble struggles of those who compete with no chance of victory. That ideal-fragile, endangered, and often forgotten once the Games begin-drives Williams in a way Olympic winners may never understand.

Williams's 11.91 mightn't be keeping Ms. Jones (P.B. 10.65) awake at nights, but it does make her the fastest woman ever from civil war ravaged Sierra Leone. Sydney at the moment is perhaps the best place to be on Earth; by the reckoning of the United Nations, Sierra Leone is the worst. The average life expectancy in this tiny West African nation is 38 years. More than 100 people from a population of 4 million die each day from starvation. The infant mortality rate is 164 per thousand. Once renowned for its pure diamonds, Sierra Leone is now infamous for the bloodlust of its rebels-the guerrillas of the Revolutionary United Front. Kidnapping, mutilation and the raping of children have relegated sport to a low place on the nation's priorities list. In 1996, Sierra Leone sent a 21-strong track and field squad to the Atlanta Games. In 2000, its entire team comprises two athletes and a weightlifter.

Training next door to the Olympic Stadium on a warm, cloudless afternoon, Williams could hardly be further removed from the woes of her homeland, but she is still troubled. She tells how her uncle was killed in the fighting and her family's new home in the capital Freetown burned down-then stops, eyes pleading for a new subject. Her coach, Francis Edwin, confides later that Williams' dearest friend was also killed. Still grieving and unfit, she arrived in Spain early last year for the world championships, and in her 100-m heat (won by Inger Miller) finished last, in an embarrassing 13.08 sec.

It was a race that changed her life. Watching closely was Edwin, a Freetown-born athletics coach based at the University of California at Chico. In Williams' leaden stride Edwin saw something neither her misery nor lack of condition could disguise: raw athletic talent. With financial aid from the International Olympic Committee, which helps promising athletes from developing countries, Edwin arranged to bring Williams to the U.S. for her first taste of high-quality training. He also persuaded Nike to sponsor her. As a result, Williams in Sydney is a model of athletic chic. But even in garish red spikes and a cutting-edge floppy cap, she is still, one senses, a fashion innocent.

In the science of sprinting, she required more urgent attention. "I was running very badly with no style or technique," she explains. Edwin made her lift weights for the first time. And swim. She started to work muscles she didn't know she had. She wasn't fit, at least not in a way elite athletes understand the term. Edwin had her pounding out 300-m sprints with cruelly short rests in between. In self-defense, her body began to grow. A high-protein, high-carbohydrate diet combined with hard training stacked 11 kg of muscle onto a body that had weighed just 45 kg. "Now I am like a sprinter," she says proudly. And she is, with long, sinewy legs flowing into the dasher's signature body part: a powerful, jutting behind. "I will always be grateful to Francis," she says. "I was running 13 sec., and he looked beyond that and helped me. Now other coaches are talking to me, but I will pray that I never leave Francis, because that would be ungratefulness."

She is getting faster, but Sydney has come too soon for her. At these Games she hopes only to improve her best time. By Athens 2004, she believes she'll be running the 100 m in 11 sec. Less than a year of proper training has sliced more than a second off her best time, and she's convinced there's more speed inside her. Says Edwin: "My duty is to take her to the Olympic final. From there it's up to her."

So let her finish last, as if that matters compared to the rebuilding of a woman's dreams. The Olympic ideal allows for ambition, and in this she isn't lacking. It is victory she longs for; the thrill of speed is not, in itself, enough. Sierra Leone is a land of many diamonds, and Ekundayo Williams is as precious as any of them.