PORT-AU-PRINCE — Four of Haiti’s five Olympians at the London Games have something in common: They’re not from Haiti.
With millions of Haitians living on $2 a day or less and hundreds of thousands of people rendered homeless by a devastating earthquake two years ago, the country struggles to produce world-class athletes. But those with Haitian links are still eager to represent the small Caribbean country.
“I still feel Haitian even if I wasn’t born there,” 21-year-old sprinter Marlena Wesh said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Wesh, who will run in the 200- and 400-meter races at the Olympics, grew up in Virginia and is a senior at Clemson University. Her parents are from Haiti.
Besides having family ties to Haiti, the four foreign-born Olympians will compete in track and field, including the former college roommate of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Samyr Laine, a 28-year-old triple jumper, is from New York and roomed with Zuckerberg at Harvard. He was the 14th person to sign up for Zuckerberg’s social networking site.
Laine recently graduated from Georgetown Law School but hopes to use the attention generated by the Olympics to form a nonprofit group called the Jump for Haiti Foundation, a sports program that would try to produce future Olympic athletes from the country through camps and clinics. The goal is to have future teams made up of athletes who were born and raised in Haiti.
Laine said he plans to call on his friends, including his roommate-turned-billionaire, to donate a few dollars.
“I hope they see the merits of my cause,” Laine said. “I will definitely try to reach out to Mark as well.”
Moise Joseph, a 30-year-old 800-meter runner, and Jeffrey Julmis, a 28-year-old 100-meter hurdler, are also in the team.
Haiti’s lone homegrown Olympian is Linouse Desravine, a 21-year-old judoka.
There’s nothing unusual about athletes from multi-ethnic nations like the United States or Britain representing other countries. But what may be surprising to some is that Haiti, which seems to lurch from one calamity to another, is being represented in London at all.
The country does pose unusual challenges for athletes. Three of the country’s five competitive running tracks are home to thousands of people in tents and shanties who were displaced by the January 2010 earthquake. The office of the Haitian Olympic Committee overlooks a hillside shantytown and has a budget of $400,000; the U.S. Olympic Committee’s budget is about $170 million.
“`Our daily struggle in the Olympic committee here is finding funds,” said Alain Jean-Pierre, the body’s secretary general.
Haiti first competed at the 1900 Paris Olympics and won its first medal in the same city at the 1924 Games when it took bronze in the team rifle competition.
The country’s only individual medal was a silver won by Silvio Cator in the men’s long jump at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. Cator today is remembered with pride and the national stadium in downtown Port-au-Prince is named after him.
Another notable Olympian from Haiti was marathon runner Dieudonne Lamothe, the first from his country to compete in four Olympics.
More medals in London will be tough.
“I don’t think so but I think we’ll have two athletes in the finals,” Jean-Pierre said.
Frederic Charles, a 29-year-old computer technician and the half brother of Olympic runner Joseph, will be among those watching and waiting for Haiti to succeed.
Charles once lived in one of the hundred displacement camps but recently moved into a studio in Port-au-Prince. Above a collection of old desktop computers, the four walls bear posters of a uniform-wearing Joseph sprinting in races.
“He’s running for Haiti,” Charles said, “so that someone can think about Haiti.”
Photo: Samyr Laine