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September 25, 2000
Third from last, but who cares?Paul Majendie
A year ago Aguida Amaral's land was racked by fighting and her home town in ruins. On Sunday, the Olympic stadium rose to hail a heroine.
The East Timorese athlete may have come only third last in the women's marathon but this was a richly symbolic moment to savour.
The crowd realised how special it was -- she got a cheer to equal the reception given to Japanese winner Naoko Takahashi.
But Amaral almost threw away her precious moment of glory.
Entering the stadium and greeted by that roar of appreciation, she went down on her knees and prayed.
An official gently pointed out that she still had another 400 metres to go. So she got up, quickened her pace and breasted the line. This time she kissed the ground.
Amaral finished almost 48 minutes behind the winner but that was irrelevant. She was the embodiment of the Olympic spirit -- taking part was what it was all about.
"It's been a good day because I had a good start and I was able to finish the race," she told the Sydney Morning Herald.
"When I heard the crowd I got so happy it was like a dream. This is a big day for my country and also for myself. They were praying for me and they helped me improve on my time," she said.
The 28-year-old, who is married and has four children back home in Dili, had only ever finished three marathons before Sunday's big race against the world's best.
She is one of four East Timorese athletes for whom just existing is an achievement. Being here is a triumph for the quartet who lost all their belongings and training equipment in the conflict.
Boxer Victor Ramos lasted only minutes in the Sydney Games ring but United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed his Olympic participation because it "underscores the potential for peace in the world".
Ramos, 30, fled to the mountains in his homeland when pro-Indonesian militia launched a wave of killings.
Recalling the upheaval that nearly cost him his life, he said: "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."
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 U.N. control and the United Nations said in July that elections and possibly final independence could come by the end of 2001.
The four East Timorese competed as independent athletes at the Games as, although it gained independence from Indonesia last year, their homeland does not yet have an elected government or a national Olympic committee.
They were given a rousing reception at the opening ceremony when they entered the stadium just ahead of host nation Australia.
Their appearance marked only the second time that a team of independent athletes has taken part in the Olympic Games. A squad from Yugoslavia was the first in 1992.
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