It’s the rainy season in South Sudan, and vehicles can’t pass on the rural roads that connect their village to the nearby town of Panrieng. So they’ll complete a marathon of their own, making the long walk with the hope of seeing just a glimpse of their long-lost son, an athlete without a country, finding refuge in these Olympics.
Marial was just 9 years old when he said goodbye. With great difficulty, he eventually escaped to Egypt, where he lived with an aunt and uncle. Then to New Hampshire, where he attended high school. And Iowa, where he enrolled in college. And now Arizona, where he lives, works and runs. But Marial doesn’t identify himself as American and certainly not as Sudanese. Just one week before the Opening Ceremonies, Marial learned he would be allowed to compete at these Summer Games unaffiliated with any nation. He’s running under a white flag that features the Olympic logo.
“Representing the five rings, it’s the best,” Marial said Friday. “I’m representing the whole world, basically.”
Marial was born in the early stages of a troubled nation’s bloody civil war. His family now calls their home the Republic of South Sudan, the year-old nation carved out of so much strife and death. To compete at the Summer Games, a country must have a recognized Olympic committee. Forming such a sports organization wasn’t high on South Sudan’s to-do list in its early stages of countryhood.
Last fall, Marial posted a qualifying time for the Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) initially urged him to represent Sudan, whose Olympic committee extended him an invitation to join its team. But that was never an option, Marial said.
“When I left Sudan, there was a lot of issues that happened to me,” he said, “that happened to the South Sudanese.”
Eight of his siblings were among an estimated 2 million people who died during the course of the war. Marial was just a child when he was kidnapped and forced into hard labor. There were no luxuries then and each day was focused around finding enough food to eat. “Survival of the fittest,” Marial calls it.
“I didn’t know what the outside world was,” he said. “I knew this was the only world we have, being able to survive this way.”
The idea of running — competitive running — was foreign. The Olympics didn’t exist there because televisions didn’t exist there.