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June 9, 2000
Coup in Fiji leaves Olympic athlete stranded

 LONDON (AP) -- Being an Olympic athlete from Fiji is challenging enough in the best of times. Now, the remote island nation is shaken by a coup and hostage crisis.

 And Tony Philp, a 30-year-old windsurfer, is left wondering about his country half a world away.

 Philp has represented Fiji at four Olympics. He's already qualified for the Sydney Games. He dreams of winning his country's first medal in his final Olympics.

 But the upheaval at home has left Philp stranded in Europe without equipment or a plane ticket to Australia.

 Philp was competing in the European Championships in Cadiz, Spain, when armed rebels stormed the parliamentary compound in Suva, the capital of Fiji, on May 19 and took the prime minister and 30 other people hostage.

 The standoff has shattered Fiji's idyllic image as a haven of tropical serenity.

 "It was really a shock," Philp said. "Fiji is supposed to be a paradise. The people are supposed to be the friendliest people in the world. It's horrible what's going on. It really breaks my heart to see this."

 The South Pacific island, with a population of 800,000 and located about 1,100 miles north of New Zealand and 2,800 miles southwest of Hawaii, experienced two coups in 1987.

 "I was in Fiji in March, and everything was perfect," Philp said. "It makes it all the more strange. From what I can gather this is much worse than in '87. It looks like it's going to drag on."

 Philp, who monitors the crisis on TV and in newspapers, said his family is safe. But the insurrection has thrown his Olympic preparations into turmoil.

 Following the competition in Spain, he had planned to buy new equipment in Germany and set up training camp in Marseille, France. Then he would go to California for a month in July, and arrive in Sydney in August to get ready for the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 games.

 "The coup has put a hold on everything," Philp said in a telephone interview from France. "I can't get my equipment. I have no equipment at this moment. I've had to cancel my training camp. I don't even have a ticket to go back to Sydney. I'm stuck."

 Philp gets some funding through Olympic Solidarity, an International Olympic Committee program which provides scholarships to needy athletes. But that money isn't enough to cover all his travel, training and equipment costs.

 The funding that Philp receives from the government and sports federations in Fiji has dried up since the coup.

 "I was relying on the govermment for a lot of funding," he said. "I think I'm the least of their problems right now. Between now and the Olympics, I don't expect anything from the government. There is no government."

 For now, Philp has decided to stay at his French girlfriend's house in Rennes, keep in touch with events in Fiji and try to find the money for airfare to Sydney.

 "I'm as stranded as you can get," he said. "The other guys are winding down their training. I'm in no-man's land. If I can just get my equipment and get back to Sydney, that's all I need right now."

 Philp hopes there is a silver lining in the crisis.

 "This is just another final hurdle," he said. "Maybe it will work out for the best. Going back to Sydney early might be a blessing in disguise. The winds in Sydney harbor are very particular. It will give me more time to get used to the conditions."

 Philp first competed at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where windsurfing made its debut as a medal sport. He also took part in the games in Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta.

 Philp's best Olympic result was 10th place in Barcelona. But he was second at the world championships last year and has been consistently ranked in the world's top 10 in recent years.

 With Fiji sending a maximum of five athletes to Sydney, Philp represents the team's best hope for a medal.

 "Fiji has never come close to a medal," he said. "Fiji has taken the Olympics as something you attend, but never thought about winning."

 Winning is all that Philp thinks about.

 "For 20 years, windsurfing is all I've done," he said. "This is my last Olympics, my last chance at getting a medal. I am one of seven guys who can win the gold medal. I have a chance. I just have to be strong enough to put this behind me.

 "The only thing that will stop me from getting to the start line in Sydney is if for some reason the IOC gets involved and says Fiji can't take part. I have to go. Come hell and high water, I'm going to be there."

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