Friday, August 10, 2012
Marathoner is running under the Olympic flag
LONDON -- Smiling, Guor Marial rubbed his hand across the five Olympic rings on the sleeve of his new white jacket.
He's the Olympic marathon runner that doesn't have a country. At the London Games, Marial will run, instead, as an independent athlete under the banner of the International Olympic Committee.
"Representing the five rings is the best," he said. "I'm representing the whole world, basically."
In a case that the IOC has called "unique," Marial was given a place at the games under the Olympic flag after he fled a refugee camp in what is now South Sudan during a civil war over a decade ago and landed in the United States, seeking asylum.
With no passport, no country and seemingly no hope, Marial met fellow runner Brad Poore at a race in Minneapolis in October and struck up a seemingly casual friendship over a pasta dinner.
Just 10 months later -- and after Poore had phoned everyone he could think of from charities to senators, embassies and border agencies to make an unlikely dream a reality -- Marial will get to compete in his sport's biggest race on the final day of the London Olympics.
He will have "I.O.A." printed on his new gray and black uniform in Sunday's marathon, like he did on his new jacket Friday: Independent Olympic Athlete.
And some new bright yellow running shoes. His regular pair were getting a bit old, he said.
"I feel so great. I feel so fortunate to be here," he said. "I have my IOC flag. They gave me a flag, so that's good."
Marial was born in what is now the newly independent country of South Sudan. He fled the violence and hardship way before the south broke away from Sudan last year and doesn't have any South Sudanese documents. Although he is now a permanent resident in the U.S., he's not a citizen there, either.
Sudan offered him the chance to represent it at the games. He thanked them but explained he had no desire to run for that country following the civil war and the hardships dealt out to him and his fellow South Sudanese.
"When I left Sudan, there was a lot of issues that happened to me, happened to the South Sudanese. It was hard for me to accept the offer (of Sudan)," he said.
So, without an official nationality and with Poore's help, he was able to become one of four athletes competing in London under the Olympic flag. The others are from the former Netherlands Antilles.
"It feels like the entire world came together to make it possible for Guor to be here," said Poore, Marial's friend and representative. Poore was described by IOC spokesman Mark Adams as "a one man chef de mission" in London.
"I told him (Marial) I would try and make a couple of phone calls for him, send a couple of emails, and it snowballed and here we are," Poore added. "Who didn't I call ..."
The 28-year-old Marial, who now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, needed help with a team and with travel documents, but he had no problem qualifying for the Olympics.
He's only ever run two marathons -- his first the day after he met Poore in Minneapolis last year -- but finished both of them in Olympic times. His second was in June.
He explained that he used to hate running. It was connected with violence and danger when he was growing up.
Running "is something I used to do to escape for my life," he said.
"But now if you tell me not to run one day, it's impossible for me. I have to run. Maybe when I'm 80, I'll stop running," Marial added.
Marial escaped Sudan's civil war and violence, fleeing to Egypt and eventually arrived in the U.S. in 2001. But his family is still lives in a small village in South Sudan. He hasn't seen his mother and father in nearly 20 years.
There's no electricity where they live. So, even though there is cellphone coverage, they can't charge the phone battery.
A younger member of the family walks about 30 miles -- more than a marathon -- to another village with electricity to charge the phone, then back home so Marial can speak with his relatives, Poore said. When Marial learned a few weeks ago that he was competing in the Olympics, about 40 of them wanted to talk to him.
On Sunday, Marial is hoping his family can walk another 30-40 miles to their nearest city to watch him run on TV. That would enable them to see him for the first time in two decades.
"I'm sitting here, as we say in this country, gobsmacked," IOC spokesman Adams said as Marial recounted his life to reporters. "The more I hear, the more amazed I am and the more respect I have for Guor. It's an incredible story.
"We have had athletes in the past who have marched under the Olympic flag, but I think these circumstances are unique. It is quite humbling, actually, to be here and hear the story."
Marial said he felt responsible for the people of South Sudan and "the whole country will be with me, on my shoulder" when he runs. And even with the significance of the race for him and his fellow South Sudanese, Marial also was determined to enjoy himself and meet as many athletes as possible in London.
Already a number had asked him about his "I.O.A." jacket, he said, again touching the Olympic logo on his right arm.
"It's pretty unique," Marial said. "The first thing they (athletes) say is, 'Oh that's a really nice jacket. What is that?' So I told them I'm running independent. And they say 'What is independent?' Running under the Olympic flag. It's hard for people to understand how that's possible.
He has enjoyed seeing athletes such as Usain Bolt and 800 meters champion David Rudisha of Kenya.
"It's just amazing. I took a couple of photos of some of them," Marial said.
He's not expected to win a medal, with his personal best of 2 hours, 12 minutes and 55 seconds around 10 minutes off the leading runners. But any medal he did win would be for the IOC, he said, and not himself or South Sudan, since it made his Olympics possible.
"He's a confident guy. He's a 2:12 runner, not a 2:02 runner, and he's smart enough to know on paper that's a big difference," said Poore, whose regular job is a criminal defense attorney in California. "But anything can happen. And good things have been happening for Guor lately."
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