Indie Runner Carries South Sudan’s Hopes

Guor Marial waves the Olympic flag now, but the country hopes to fly its own colors in 2016.

Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images
Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

(The Root) — Marathoner Guor Marial has said that he used to hate running.

That’s because, he says, growing up in Southern Sudan, he used to run for his life. During the country’s decadeslong civil war between the Northern government and Southern rebels, Marial, 28, saw many family members die at the hands of federal forces. He was also kidnapped twice before a 2005 peace deal ended the war in which more than 1.5 million people died.

Last July, South Sudan successfully seceded from Sudan. Now Marial is set to run against more than 100 other participants in Sunday’s Olympic marathon — but not under the newly independent nation’s colors. The landlocked, oil-rich East African country missed out on being part of the games because there was little time to complete the lengthy process to be recognized by the International Olympic Committee.

For South Sudan Sports Minister Cirino Hiteng Ofuho, not being able to fly the country’s new flag over the Olympic Stadium is a bitter pill to swallow. After all, he said, the nation was very quickly welcomed into the United Nations, the African Union, the powerful international soccer body FIFA and the African soccer organization. He says that the delay in being recognized by the IOC is “disappointing.”

“The process takes two years, and we are just one year independent now,” he told The Root. “And so that already has hampered our efforts to participate in these Olympics, even if we had prepared a few athletes in the Paralympic Games in basketball.”

The IOC suggested that Marial run for Sudan, but he refused. Instead he chose to compete as an independent — one of four athletes chosen by the IOC — under the Olympic flag. Though Marial fled Sudan at 15 and attended Iowa State University after arriving in the U.S. as a refugee in 2001, he hasn’t yet received U.S. citizenship, so he can’t compete as an American.

“For me it means a lot to glorify the people who died for their freedom and people who lost their lives, including 28 members of my family and relatives,” he told Reuters. “Their spirit is what allows me to get up every single day, put on my shoes and train to honor them.”