African Athletes Find Training, Home, and Heart in a Small Town

LaGrange, Ga., opens its doors to a group of hopeful young Olympians

Since the day six years ago that Atlanta won the right to host the Centennial Olympic Games, people have wondered how local organizers did it. How did they manage such a coup?

Part of the answer may lie in what happened in Atlanta in 1984 and now echoes down the road some 60 miles away in LaGrange, Ga.

A former cotton-mill town of 26,000 inhabitants, LaGrange has created an international athletic training center that is a descendent to a two-month, pre-Olympic training camp for African athletes held at Emory University in Atlanta before the '84 Los Angeles Games.

Ron Davis, a former coach and runner at San Jose State University in California in the 1960s, now coaches the multifaceted "I Train in LaGrange" program, launched four years ago. Current Olympians and promising juniors, mostly from Africa, are prime beneficiaries of LaGrange's outreach.

In 1984, Davis joined with Andrew Young, then Atlanta's mayor, in establishing the training camp that prepared athletes from small African countries to compete in Los Angeles.

"The results in LA were really fantastic," says Davis, who spent 17 years coaching throughout Africa before moving to LaGrange. "When Atlanta was trying to get the '96 Games, I assisted Andrew Young [co-chairman of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games] in lobbying International Olympic Committee members from Africa.

"There was a lot of interest among African officials in repeating what had happened in Atlanta in 1984, when 80 athletes from 12 countries had trained there. If Atlanta was selected, the intention was to do it again."

This eventually blossomed in LaGrange because the mayor let it be known that his city was eager to expand its business and cultural horizons by getting involved in the Games.

Chris Joseph, the former mayor who now operates an accounting firm in a converted bus station, helped start the "I Train in LaGrange" ball rolling along with Bobby Rearden, a board member of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games who met Davis on a 1989 Olympic-related trip to Mauritius.

Mr. Joseph recently flew to South Africa to accompany the 136-member South African Olympic team back to this west-central Georgia town, which is among numerous communities across the state and the South hosting national delegations in the final weeks before the Olympics' July 19 Opening Ceremony.

LaGrange serves as one of four track and field training hubs for Olympic Solidarity, a program of the International Olympic Committee that assists athletes from developing countries. The other sites are in Rome, Barcelona, and Paris.

"I'm really impressed with the Solidarity athletes we've been sent; they're not some foreign minister's son-in-law," says Jim Minnihan, executive director of the LaGrange Sports Authority, the nonprofit corporation that administers the "I Train in LaGrange " program. "They're really top-flight athletes who have a strong desire to succeed."

Most are national champions and all are enrolled in school, either as high school or college students. This educational component, Minnihan says, often involves scholarships to LaGrange College or West Georgia Tech."If you give them an education," Minnihan says, "they'll go home and be leaders in their country. They'll become coaches or ministers of sport. They'll have something. That's been the focus that makes the difference."

Paving the way for African athletes to come to LaGrange can be a nettlesome job, which Minnihan says must be made up as you go along. "Try sending a fax to Chad," he says summarizing the challenges.

This sort of work has become his calling since Minnihan helped to resettle a group of young athletes from war-torn Sarajevo in Illinois several years ago. A former trial lawyer in Chicago, he has the experience and patience to handle the complex arrangements needed to administer the LaGrange program.

He's welcomed athletes who speak no English and have never before traveled outside their countries. "When they get here we take them to Wal-Mart, because they frequently have a bag and not much else," Minnihan says. "For a kid who's never been out of the village, it's an awesome experience. A culture shock."

Most visiting athletes adjust quickly, thanks to friendships with other athletes and also because of efforts LaGrange has made to welcome them. Each athlete has a host family.

"Everything they could be included in they are," says Chris Joseph, who says athletes have marched in Fourth of July and Christmas parades, been invited to share family meals, holidays, and outings, become integral members of local congregations, and made numerous school visits to forge bonds with young residents.

Long-range, Joseph believes these new friendships could pay off economically for LaGrange, which already enjoys significant international business connections.

"When [foreign] groups have an opportunity to open a manufacturing plant or establish a trade relationship, they may say, let's look at LaGrange as opposed to Atlanta or Savannah or some other city."

Minnihan says citizens of LaGrange will still root loudly for US Olympians, "but this [training program] gives us somebody else to cheer for. Before, it was just all these other countries."

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