Augusto Ramos Soares and fellow marathon runner Juventina Napoleao, 23, are the only Timorese athletes who will compete at the Olympics this year. Their participation is no small feat for a country still shaking off a past so violent that locals like to joke: “The last time I ran, it was because Indonesian troops were chasing me.”
In a country where 40% of the population still lives on less than 78p a day, Soares faces pre-Games woes that many of his competitors don’t, from irregular training schedules to wrecked trainers and a shortage of proper food and supplements. But the 25-year-old is undaunted. Having qualified at February’s Tokyo marathon, Soares – who will represent Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor, in the men’s athletics team at this year’s Games – says he’s prepared for whatever London may throw at him, from cold weather (“No problem – I’ll bring a jumper”) to a circular route (“It’s boring and tiring to run in loops, but I’ll watch other people and their style of running”).
“A lot of countries don’t know anything about Timor-Leste,” he says, “so I’m happy to represent my country to the rest of the world and prove that Timor-Leste is a country that can compete.”
Soares and fellow marathon runner Juventina Napoleao, 23, are the only Timorese athletes who will compete at the Olympics this year. Their participation is no small feat for a country still shaking off a past so violent that locals like to joke: “The last time I ran, it was because Indonesian troops were chasing me.”
A Portuguese colony for nearly 500 years, Timor-Leste finally won its independence in 1975, only to be brutally annexed by Indonesia a week later. The takeover killed off nearly a third of Timor-Leste’sits population by 1999, and left the country in ruins. It finally gained independence in 2002 after a UN-brokered peace deal, and in May celebrated a decade of self-rule.
This year is therefore a hugely important one for the nation, not least because of its participation at the Olympics, which many see as proof that it is fully standing on its own two feet. In March a new president was sworn in – the former guerrilla fighter Taur Matan Ruak, who replaced the Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta, parliamentary elections took place on 7 July, and the UN peacekeeping force – which has been present on and off since 1999 and can still be seen throughout the capital, Dili – is due to withdraw fully by December.
With its inadequate training facilities and insufficient athletic funding, Timor-Leste’s government knows that it falls short in its ability to support its athletes, but hopes that this will change. “We can’t yet send athletes from other sports [to the Olympics] because we can’t afford the pre-qualifications,” says Afranio Xavier Amaral, who heads Timor-Leste’s the National Sports Federation. “But I have a vision that in the future we will have competitors in judo, gymnastics and swimming.”
In a nation where most of the 1.1 million inhabitants are among the world’s poorest, the government’s recent focus on sports is an interesting one. Dili has hosted an international marathon since 2010, as well as a mountain-biking competition held in September, started by Ramos-Horta, who says that sports are a form of “group therapy” for the nation to help heal resentment and conflict.
“When you’re confronted with a society suffering from conflict and violence, you devise strategies to deal with it,” he explains. “Every society needs role models. Now, look at us. For the first time in 10 years, we’re fully eligible to attend the Olympics on our own merit, instead of ‘being permitted’ out of sympathy to participate. That creates pride in our people.”
Soares’s coach, Agueda Amaral, is perhaps Timor-Leste’s most famous role model and a source of great national pride. After being run out of her house by Indonesian troops in 1999, who went on a looting, killing and raping spree after Timor-Leste voted for independence, Amaral was forced to train for the 2000 Sydney Olympics at refugee camp where she and thousands of others were displaced. “I lost everything – my house, my belongings, my only pair of running shoes, everything,” she says. “So I trained barefoot and I trained proud.”
Soares was just 15 when he saw the photos of Amaral crossing the Sydney finish line in his local paper. “Then she came to my school to recruit runners, and I got motivated,” he says. “In my village, no one has any skills or knowledge. I wanted to be like Agueda: she’s an amazing athlete and a true inspiration to Timorese youth.”
Training whenever he can and eating what he wants, Soares’ only directions are to avoid soft drinks, gassy liquids, ice and smoking. “He’s the best of my recruits already,” Amaral says. “As long as he sleeps enough, he’ll be fine.”
In mid-JuneLast month, Soares and Amaral headed to Portugal for additional training, before going on to London, where the goal is for Soares to run under 2:25:00, shaving more than eight minutes off his Tokyo time of 2:33:46.
Soares, who is one of seven children and donates the prize money from his previous marathons to his parents, says he is grateful for the opportunity to have a life his family long imagined impossible. “If I didn’t have this opportunity, I’d be doing what my parents are doing: farming. Now I get to see cities like London. I know nothing about it. Is it very modern? That’s what I heard.”
They are calm and collected now, but at times both Amaral and Soares seem like they want to pinch themselves. “I never thought this day would happen,” says Amaral, waving her hand behind her as if referring to Timor-Leste’s bloody past. “This really is a very exciting and privileged time for us.”