PÉTIONVILLE, Haiti — The Haitian Olympic Committee occupies two floors of a three-story building at 48 Rue Clerveaux. On the ground level sits the Bouchara Café, a vacant space that once housed an international restaurant owned by secretary general Alain Jean Pierre. Up the tiled steps in Pierre’s office, two cracks, remnants of the 2010 earthquake that registered a 7.0 on the Richter scale, run parallel, from ceiling to floor, along a cement wall. A glossy track and field calendar covers part of the open crevices.
“It was like a train was coming but you couldn’t get up,” Pierre says.
Fissures run deep into Haiti’s athletic foundation. Seven athletes aiming to qualify for the Olympics died in the collapse. Stade Sylvio Cator, the soccer venue named after the only Haitian to win an individual Olympic medal — silver for the long jump in 1928 — is operational but sits surrounded by rubble and razor wire in downtown Port-au-Prince.
Nearby, dirt tracks serve as the dusty homes of locals living under blue tarpaulin tents and rusting tin shacks.
“Everybody here was a victim,” Pierre says.
Relief filters into Pierre’s cell phone from Haiti’s greatest hope for a medal in the London Games. Samyr Laine, a triple jumper and Newburgh, N.Y. product whose parents emigrated from Haiti in the ’70s, sends regular text messages updating his training. Laine, 27, roomed with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg freshman year at Harvard, holds a Georgetown law degree and boasts the Haitian national record in the triple jump (17.39 meters). He reports his most recent mark from a U.S. Track and Field Regional on June 10 to Pierre: I jumped 16.98 yesterday so everything is going according to plan
Pierre dials Laine’s number and issues a demanding response.
“I need 17.5 for the gold,” Pierre says.
Laine leaps in isolation 1,500 miles away from the United Nations peacekeepers patrolling Haiti with rifles pointed toward the streets. Twice offered a full-time position by Shearman & Sterling, LLP, a firm in midtown Manhattan, Laine deferred both times, honing his hop, bound and jump phases in Lorton, Va. while competing for the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. He charges down single-lane, 50-meter runways from Bogota to Istanbul to Daegu to Doha hoping to land on a podium in London on Aug. 9.
“He is a jewel that has just exploded,” says Jean-Edouard Baker, the Haitian Olympic Committee president. “In great part, he was fortunate. His family left the country. He had the opportunity to build his skills and develop the talent in schools.”
In 2007, Laine first contacted the Haitian contingent. He posted a message on hurdler Nadine Parker’s fan page while she, too, represented her parents’ country in the Olympics despite being born in New York. Laine had never set foot on Haitian soil.
“I was shocked when he told me,” says Laine’s father, Jacques, who departed Haiti when he was 13 and the country was ruled by dictator Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier. “I was like, ‘Why Haiti?’ He told me they needed people.”
Since Laine established his personal best in 2007, only two Team USA members have outdistanced him: Christian Taylor and Will Claye. Taylor unexpectedly won gold at the 2011 world championship with a 17.96-meter jump. Claye took bronze.
Laine plans to elevate Haitian athletics by laying the base for a sports community challenged by its lack of funds and facilities. There are no synthetic tracks in the Caribbean country of nine million people, and only one of the five athletes qualified to represent Haiti in London was born there. While children run barefoot through fetid fields, politicians promise progress. The International Olympic Committee intends to convert a 90-acre cow pasture into an all-sports center by 2013, but past and current members of the contingent caution that prior projects fell prey to politics.
“The infrastructure and misappropriation of things is the problem in a nutshell,” says Dudley Dorival, an Elizabeth, N.J. product who ran the 110-meter hurdles for Haiti in the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Olympics. “It’s sad, breaks my heart. Hopefully the committee will use the former athletes to build a stronger program. We all want a positive light on Haiti. There are athletes there. Why shouldn’t we compete at the highest level?”
Laine, meanwhile, draws the majority of his support stateside. He receives gear from Mizuno, volunteers as an assistant coach at George Mason University to gain access to the gym and tutors students for the SAT. He does clerical work at a chiropractor’s office and eats for free at Z Pizza, a restaurant chain that specializes in organic foods (Slogan: “Give your taste buds their 15 seconds of fame!”) He emailed the corporate office to request a sponsorship and the company provided him a house account.
“I’m pretty sure the cashier wonders who I am,” Laine says.
Social media offers reminders of potential earnings he has sacrificed.
Zuckerberg’s net worth is valued at more than $17.5 billion. Laine, the 14th person to sign onto Facebook, did not purchase stock in the company’s Initial Public Offering last month, but stays in contact with Zuckerberg.