Officially, marathon runner Guor Marial isn’t competing for any country. During the Olympic Opening Ceremony, you may have noticed four athletes come out with the Olympic flag rather than their country’s flag. Three of the athletes were from the Netherland Antilles, which recently dissolved its National Olympic Committee. Marathon runner Guor Marial is competing officially as an independent, but he is truly representing South Sudan.
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South Sudan became an independent nation in 2011, when the southern part of Sudan, comprised of mostly Christian black Africans, voted in a referendum to split from the north comprised of Muslim Arabs. Sudan has been torn apart by bloody civil wars that have spanned decades. The civil wars were responsible for killing 28 of Marial’s family members and caused him to flee to the United States as a refugee at the age of 15.
In the United States, Marial discovered his love for the sport of running. He had run in Sudan, but then it was an act of survival. When he was 8 years old, he’d run away at night from the gunmen who’d kidnapped him, and he was forced to spend several days hiding away in a cave. After finally returning to his family, he was captured again and forced into a year of unpaid labor. He finally escaped to Egypt, and then eventually was granted refugee status to the United States. Running had become a way of life, but America was where running transformed into a love.
Marial started becoming a competitive runner as a high school student in New Hampshire, and then became an Iowa State track star. He achieved an Olympic qualifying time in his very first marathon, but he didn’t have a nation to represent.
Marial was unable to compete for the United States because he hasn’t yet received his American citizenship. South Sudan doesn’t yet have an Olympics committee, which is a requirement for sending athletes. Sudan invited him to join their team, but he refused to do what he believed would dishonor the 2 million who died for his new nation’s freedom. It began to look like he would never realize his Olympic dream.
The 28-year-old marathoner’s story motivated thousands to petition IOC President Jacques Rogge to allow him to run as an independent. New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shahan was a powerful supporter, and helped Marial with his bid to realize an Olympic moment. Over a week ago, Marial finally got word that he had been approved by the IOC, and his dream has now been fulfilled.
Marial may not have been able to carry the South Sudan flag or get to hear the anthem if he wins gold. He will be representing his young nation and giving its first global showcase. Marial in his heart will be proudly competing for a South Sudan that will be passionately cheering for him.
Be sure to catch Guor Marial’s big run in the marathon on August 12.
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(Image courtesy of NBC)