Olympic debut for South Sudan

Guor Marial runs on a road in Arizona, in the US, where he has been living since fleeing South Sudan 14 years ago.

A proud Marial poses for a photograph under the flag of his homeland.

Luol Deng, a professional basketball player in the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, was also born in South Sudan.
(Images: Yahoo.com)

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Valencia Talane

South African Sports Confederation and Olympic CommitteeOne of the most memorable moments in an Olympic athlete’s life must be when they earn the opportunity to raise their country’s flag in victory and receive praise from their countrymen.

For 28-year-old runner Guor Marial, things will be a little different in London on the day of his event, the marathon, on 12 August. Although he will not be participating for his birth country South Sudan, he aims for glory in one of the most prestigious events of the Games.

Marial is one of two independent athletes, the other being Liemarvin Bonevacia of the Netherlands Antilles, an autonomous country located in the Caribbean, but falling within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Independent athletes participate under the Olympic flag, and not that of their country. There are several reasons for this – the athlete’s country of origin may not be a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), or it may be going through a political transition or may even be subject to sanctions preventing its participation.

Marial has only known since 20 July – seven days before the opening cermony – of his inclusion in the Games, but he could not be more proud.

Even before the announcement, he had snubbed an invitation by Sudan to be included in that country’s team, saying it would be a betrayal of his own country.

New kid on the block

Because South Sudan has only been an independent state since July 2011 – after gaining independence from Sudan, which lies to its north – the country has not been able to meet a crucial IOC requirement to establish its own national Olympic committee.

Following decades of civil war within the old Sudan, a peace agreement was signed by the two regions in 2005, and a referendum in January 2011 saw almost 99% of citizens supporting the breakaway of South Sudan.

To the southeast of its borders lies Kenya, arguably Africa’s most successful breeding ground of top track and field athletes, having produced great champions such as Paul Tergat, Catherine Ndereba, Wilson Kipketer and Samuel Wanjiru, the current Olympic marathon champion.

South Sudan is a member of the UN as well as the African Union.

Undeterred by history

Having fled the country at the age of 14 because of civil war, Marial has spent the last half of his life working hard at his track and field career in his new home, the US. Because he does not have US citizenship, Marial is not able to compete as part of their team.

After an A-qualification standard for the Games in October 2011, he beat his own personal best time in a marathon in San Diego in June, finishing in a time of 2:12:55.

“To have someone in the Olympics after one year of independence is amazing,” said Marial in an interview with Reuters.

He hopes to finish in the top 20 runners for his event, and says he is inspired by his 28 relatives who were killed during the course of the war in his country.

“It means a lot to me to glorify the people who died for their freedom. Their spirit is what allows me to get up every single day and put on my shoes and train to honour them.”

Not the only one

Another South Sudan-born athlete at this year’s Games is 27-year-old Luol Deng, who plays professional basketball with the National Basketball Association’s Chicago Bulls, and who has represented Great Britain in the sport in the past.

His professional career began in 2004, and has seen him win multiple awards over the years.

Deng and his family also fled their native country when he was a child, moving first to Egypt and then later the UK. He obtained his British citizenship in 2006, which is why he is able to compete as part of Team Great Britain.