Lopez Lomong, a former child refugee, aims for 5,000m gold

"I used to run for my life, but now I'm running for joy and to inspire kids who might be refugees or in a really bad situation like I was."

The words of American runner Lopez Lomong, a former 'Lost Boy' child refugee from South Sudan who will run in the 5,000m for the United States on Wednesday.

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I want to bring that gold medal home because I owe it to the American people who took me in

Lopez Lomong

It has been a remarkable journey for the 27-year-old, who was one of thousands of child refugees who fled the civil war in Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s.

"One Sunday morning, rebels burst into our church in the village of Kimatong and tore me away from my mother's arms," he told the BBC.

"All our parents were begging them not to take us, but they kidnapped all the kids and took us to a training camp to become child soldiers."

Conditions at the training camp were horrific and for food they were fed sorghum  mixed with sand.

"Many of the boys were so hungry they just ate it all," he added. "But they couldn't digest the sand and they would just die."

Lomong said all the girls were separated and he does not know what happened to them.

At the tender age of six, he was too young to carry his AK47 assault rifle and faced death with the other little boys, but three older boys looked after him and one night they decided they were going to escape.

While the rebel soldiers smoked and laughed around them, they managed to crawl out of the camp unnoticed and started running.

LOPEZ LOMONG FACT FILE

  • Carried the US flag at the opening ceremony for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing
  • He competed in the 1500m at the 2008 Games, reaching the semi-finals
  • He switched to the 5000m in 2012, setting a then world-leading time in April

"That was my very first race," said Lomong. "We ran three days and nights. We thought we were heading back to our village, but instead we ended up in Kenya."

From there he was registered as a refugee, spending the next 10 years in a camp, where life was tough and food was scarce.

For years, Lomong looked forward to Tuesday because that was rubbish day and he might be able to get some extra scraps.

"I used to run and play football to forget my hunger," he added. "One day all the other kids started talking about the Olympics.

"I didn't know what the Olympics were but I went with them to a richer Kenyan's house to watch it on TV."

There, Lomong saw Michael Johnson win yet another gold, the American 200m and 400m runner breaking down in tears on the podium.

"At first, I couldn't understand why he was crying because he had won the race," said Lomong. "But then I realised it was because he was running for something bigger than he was. He was running for his country.

"I knew then that I wanted to run for that same country, the United States. He was my role model from then on."

Lomong's dreams came true when the United States agreed to take 3,500 of Sudan's Lost Boys as part of a government resettlement programme.

He lived with a foster family and started training in track and field. He even met Johnson, who encouraged him to go for the Olympic trials.

In 2008, he qualified for Beijing in the 1500m and carried the US flag at the opening ceremony.

But Lomong has never forgotten his roots and frequently visits South Sudan, where he has been reunited with his family.

Through his charitable foundation, 4 South Sudan, he is raising money to provide communities with clean water, education and medicine.

"I want to bring that gold medal home because I owe it to the American people who took me in," he said.

"What I would like to see though is a female athlete carrying the flag of South Sudan in Rio 2016. That's my dream."