It was 2000 then, when Michael Johnson was the Olympics' grandest star and news of his success had filtered into the remote reaches of Africa. Lomong had little use for the things his friends called the Olympics, but he ran five miles and paid five shillings so he could stand around a black-and-white TV and watch, anyway.
Only then, at the age of 15, did Lomong realize running could be for fun and games, not simply to escape and survive.
"This is a dream right here. I've been singing that song a long time," he said of the Star Spangled Banner he heard on the Olympic telecast that night.
Lomong was taken from his parents in Sudan at 6, then grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya until he was 16. He was brought to the United States after that to live a completely different sort of existence, and now he has his chance to pay something back to the country that changed, and maybe saved, his life.
On Thursday at U.S. track trials, the 23-year-old runner will begin the quest to become an Olympian in the 1,500-meter race — to wear the red, white and blue and to show others in his poor, war-torn native land that there is always reason to hope.
"I've worked so hard," Lomong said, "and to go out and represent my new country and wear those nice uniforms and go after it, that's what it's about."
Lomong is one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," the name given to young refugees of the grisly civil war in Sudan who made it to the United States.
He was taken away from his family during church services in a Sudanese village called Kimotong when he was 6, thrown into a truck with other kids, who were driven along bumpy roads to who knows where. The boys were separated from the girls.
The boys were thrown into a one-room prison.
He never knew what happened to the girls.
It was part of a civil war in which about 2 million died and thousands of children were sent into forced labor or turned into child soldiers.
"It was my faith that kept me alive," Lomong said.
For about three weeks, Lomong lived in isolation with the other kids, watching some of them die, unable to subsist on a diet of sorghum mush, gritty with sand, and an occasional drink of water.
One night, three teenagers decided to make a break for it. They brought Lomong with them, asking him to run, but often hiding him in their backpacks when they thought authorities were in range. They roamed for two, maybe three days, climbed through a hole in the fence, and the teenagers kept Lomong engaged in the grueling escape by telling him they were going to see his mother.
"I was excited about that," he said.
The break to freedom took them to a refugee camp in Kenya, which is essentially where Lomong grew up, raising himself, not knowing if his family was dead or alive, or what his next move might be.
He spent 10 years at the camp, called Kakuma, fending for himself, thinking about a better life but not sure how to get there. He lived on a single stalk of corn the U.N. relief workers gave to each person every day. He went to school from 8 a.m. until noon each day, but it was school in name only.
"They'd tell us to go write the letter 'A' in the sand," he said.
And fun? There was precious little of that.
"Sometimes we'd get hungry," Lomong said, "so we'd just go play soccer so we could forget about that for a while."
The refugee camp was a sea of people, some 75,000 men, women and children all with stories like Lomong's. There were even times his mother was at the same camp, but with so many people, neither could know it.
In 2001, a year after he heard that fateful song, Lomong was given a lifeline: He came to the United States as part of the Lost Boys program, settling at the lakeside home of Robert and Barbara Rogers near Tully, N.Y.
"He always was agreeable about everything," Robert Rogers said. "He was sure that a mistake had been made and he didn't belong there, that they would come and take him away if they found out."
Lomong thrived in his new home, graduating from high school and emerging as one of the best young middle-distance runners in the United States.
Last Christmas, he finally returned to Sudan and saw his family for the first time since that day in the church.
"I said, 'I thought you were dead.' They said, 'We thought you were dead,'" Lomong remembers.
Not many people get to see their own gravesite, but Lomong did. There was a plot where they'd held his funeral, burying his childhood toys in place of the body they assumed they would never find.
"We dug all the stones out, did all the rituals," he said. "We basically brought me back to life again."
They started a new life, knowing they were together again, albeit still apart.
Lomong, who ran at Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Ariz., wears diamond-studded earrings that belie his quiet, humble nature. A year ago, he became a U.S. citizen.
His father, Awei, still farms in Sudan. His mother, Rita, still raises two boys and a girl across the border in Kenya. They still dream of making it to America, too, some day.
Assuming all goes well and their son qualifies for the Olympics — the finals are Sunday — they, too, will huddle around a television set and watch the games from Beijing.
So much has been made in the lead-up to the Olympics of the situation in Lomong's homeland — the crisis in Darfur, where a civil war still rages and the Chinese government is under pressure to sever its business ties with the Sudanese government.
Though his family lives in safe spots, away from these crises, Lomong still thinks about the situation — but not in the way it's portrayed by the activists.
"I want those kids there to be able to pursue their dreams and things like that, not to worry about what's going on between the Sudanese government and the Chinese government," he said. "It's what's going on with the people that I care about. We need to settle that thing."
He will run his 1,500 meters this week and hope for the best.
As a U.S. citizen, wearing red, white and blue at the Olympics, he can think of no better way to say 'Thank You' to the country that saved him.
"Now I'm not just one of the Lost Boys anymore," he said. "I'm an American.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.