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South Sudan’s first Olympic athlete captures imagination of London 2012

By Tom Law

August 13, 2012 (LONDON) - Guor Marial, South Sudan’s first Olympian, has not just inspired a generation, the theme of the London 2012 Games, but has become an inspiration for a whole nation as well as stateless people around the world.

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Guor Marial outside the Olympic Village in London the day after running in the London 2012 marathon. 13 August 2012 (Tom Law/ST)

In Sunday’s marathon Marial came 47th out of a field of over a hundred but for once it really was the taking part that mattered.

Given special compensation to compete as an Independent Olympic Athlete just days before the start of the Games, Marial was at the wrong stage of his training cycle meaning that his time of 2:19:32 was way over his personal best.

On Monday Marial told Sudan Tribune that he "wished it was a race [he] had prepared for. That would have been much better" but added that in this case finishing was "just as important". Finishing half way down the field was still a considerable achievement, especially as 20 out of 105 athletes in the marathon did not finish due to the heat.

Marial insisted that for him the heat was "not a factor" but admitted he had been under prepared due to his last minute inclusion and the fatigue of the intense media interest in his story. Before arriving in London he was conducting three to four interviews a day, even responding to interview requests at 2am and 5am local time in his home of Flagstaff, Arizona.

His journey from an eight-year-old who fled Sudan’s civil war to the confident yet humble 28-year-old who twice ran the Olympic qualifying time for the marathon over the last year attracted considerable international press coverage when it appeared as if he would not be able to appear in the Games.

Despite having permanent leave to remain in the United States, Marial is still waiting to be granted full citizenship. He was therefore unable to run under the American flag, and as thirteen-month-old South Sudan does not have an Olympic Committee, he was told he would not be allowed to compete in the colours of his homeland either.

Marial said that knowing only a week in advance that he was going to the Olympics was "something overwhelming but [...] the position and the time was insignificant", as representing the people of South Sudan was his "number one priority".

He declined the offer to run as part of the Sudanese team and after a campaign and extensive media coverage the International Olympic Association offered Marial the chance to run as an independent, one of only six given special dispensation to take part in the 30th Olympiad.

Sudan’s was a "great offer", he said, but he could not accept it because "as an athlete it is very important to do what is best for your people". Marial lost 28 members of his family including eight sisters and brothers during the civil war between the Southern rebels (SPLA) and the Sudanese government, which ended in 2005 allowing South Sudan to secede last year.

Around two million died and four million were displaced in the two-decade conflict.

"After what I have been through and the people of South Sudan, I had to take the right path [...] I do think that whatever I do I don’t do for myself, I do it for the country and that was very important to me."

Marial hopes that his story will be an inspiration not just to the people of South Sudan but to refugees all over the world. However, he refuses to say he is a role model insisting that it is up to other people to take what they want from what he has achieved.

It was the talent of the South Sudanese people that made Marial fight to come to the Olympics, he said, adding that he hopes what he has done has "put South Sudan on the world map" showing that "South Sudan is not just a country of war [...] it is a country with positives [...] with kids who can compete with anyone in the world."

Marial insists that there are young sportsmen and women much more talented than himself in South Sudan, they just needed to be given an opportunity. As soon as he is able to, Marial intends to return to South Sudan to see what part he can play in encouraging the next generation of sporting talent.

It will also give him the chance to visit his family in Unity State, including his father who he has not seen for over 20 years. Such a prospect would clearly mean the world to him but the biggest smile of the whole interview comes when he is asked how he would feel to represent South Sudan at the next Games in Brazil.

"I love my country and one day I hope to be able to wear that [South Sudanese] jersey."

He said that seeing the South Sudanese flag at the side of the road during the 42 kilometre race elevated his spirit and enabled him to run faster. He also stated that he was proud to wear the IOC colours and raise awareness about what South Sudanese people have been through to gain their independence as well as to promote the cause of refugees in general.

Rio 2016

South Sudan’s Youth and Sports Minister, Dr. Cirino Hiteng Ofuho told Sudan Tribune in Juba on Monday that it was unfortunate that Marial was not representing South Sudan but said he hoped that "we will have many South Sudanese runners, athletes and other games at the next Olympics".

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South Sudan’s Youth and Sports Minister, Dr. Cirino Hiteng Ofuho (ST)

He said that his ministry was "going to embark [...] very rigorously" to prepare South Sudan to send "soccer, basketball, athletics" and other sports teams to the next Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Despite South Sudan’s economic woes the minister said that money would not be a problem in terms of sending representatives to the next tournament. "It’s a sovereign responsibility that if we want to be like other countries in the world, we must therefore pay for what we want to be."

Listen to Guor Marial speak to Sudan Tribune the day after his race.


Additional reporting in Juba by Julius N. Uma.


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Guor Marial outside the Olympic Village in London the day after running in the London 2012 marathon. 13 August 2012 (Tom Law/ST)
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Guor Marial outside the Olympic Village in London the day after running in the London 2012 marathon. 13 August 2012 (Tom Law/ST)