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.
“Back home, to run is when you are running from danger,” he said. “Just someone telling you to run — run two miles or something — I would say that person is crazy.”
With help, Marial did run, managing to escape Sudan as the violence and atrocities worsened. He was eventually granted status as a refugee, opening a door to move to the United States with an uncle.
At the prodding of a high school track and field coach, Marial began running to meet friends, later competing collegiately at Iowa State. He now lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., where he works the graveyard shift as a caretaker for developmentally disabled adults, and trains in the high altitudes with other elite runners.
Last fall, Marial finished fifth at the Twin Cities Marathon in a time of 2 hours 14 minutes 32 seconds, good enough to meet the Olympic “A” standard required for inclusion in the Summer Games. More importantly, at a pasta dinner the night before that race, he met Brad Poore, a California attorney and an avid runner.
The two talked about running and Africa and the future. Marial explained that even if he qualified for the Olympics, he would have no country to represent in London.
“I told him I would try and make a couple phone calls for him, send a couple e-mails,” Poore said. “It kind of snowballed.”
The attorney spent months reaching out to any entity he thought might be able to help: the IOC, the United Nations, Refugees International, U.S. congressmen and senators, the British border control agency and members of the media, among others.
Finally, when the Chicago Tribune shared Marial’s plight in July, the right people at the IOC began to take an interest.
There are rules for everything at the Olympics and in order for a nation to field a team, it must first have five national sporting federations to establish a national Olympic committee, a complicated process that couldn’t be done in time for the London Games.
“It wasn’t through a lack of will or lack of trying,” said Mark Adams, an IOC spokesman. “Just didn’t quite get over the line in time.”
When it was clear that Marial wouldn’t run for his former country, the IOC agreed to let him run as an “individual Olympic athlete,” a rare designation but not one without precedent.
At the 2000 Games in Sydney, four athletes from East Timor competed, not long after the island nation became a sovereign state. And two decades ago, when Yugoslavia was the subject of U.N. sanctions, 58 athletes from three republics of the former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro) were allowed to compete as “independent Olympic participants” at the Barcelona Games.
Marial’s story moved IOC officials to grant an exemption and allow him to compete in London under the Olympic flag.
“We wanted to try to help out,” Adams said. “It is a unique case. We do have athletes in the past who’ve marched under the Olympic flag, but I think these circumstances are so unique that it’s quite humbling.”
Marial arrived here earlier this week and has been staying in Olympic Village with all the other athletes. He wears a white jacket with the Olympic rings and has to repeatedly explain to fellow Olympians why his wardrobe doesn’t sport the colors of any nation.
If he were to somehow win the race, spectators would hear the Olympic Hymn in place of a national anthem. He realizes that’s not likely but says his mission here is bigger.
“Bring awareness to the country,” he said, “and hope the young generation in South Sudan will see me and be able to dream high for the next years to come.”