If Olympic marathoner Guor Marial wins the gold medal on the Aug. 12, he’ll proudly stand atop the podium while an anthem plays over the loudspeakers:
Immortal spirit of antiquity,
Father of the true, beautiful and good,
Descend, appear, shed over us thy light
Upon this ground and under this sky
Which has first witnessed thy unperishable fame.
If these lyrics sound totally unfamiliar, take heart: they’re not part of any national anthem, because Marial is the first Olympian to ever compete without a country.
Marial — who hails from South Sudan, which just celebrated its first birthday as a country — will compete as an independent athlete at the London Olympics, under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). So if he wins a gold medal, the “Olympic Hymn” — yes, there actually is one, and yes, it has words — would be played in place of a national anthem. If he is able to take part in the opening ceremony — his U.S.-based lawyer is trying to rush the documents — he will march under the five-ringed Olympic flag. Independent falls between Iceland and India in the parade of nations. “It’s like he’s from nowhere,” says Pere Miró, the IOC’s director of relations with national Olympic committees.
Marial is a refugee from the Sudanese civil war; he’s been living in the U.S. since 2001. He has a green card and refugee status, but is not a U.S. citizen. Marial does not have citizenship, or a passport, from South Sudan either. But even if he did, he could not compete for South Sudan, since it has no Olympic team. Organizing a national Olympic committee is not at the top of South Sudan’s priority list. “There’s very little structure there for sports right now,” says Miró.
On July 21, the IOC finalized its decision to offer Marial a spot in the Olympics. His emergence was totally unexpected. “It was very strange,” says Miró. “He just appeared, suddenly.”
It all started last fall, the night before the Twin Cities Marathon, when Marial met Brad Poore, a California-based attorney and elite distance runner. The next day Marial, a former cross-country runner at Iowa State University who was running in his first marathon, finished in 2:14:32. That time was good enough to meet the Olympic qualifying standard. So Poore took up his case right away, knowing that even though Marial could not compete for the U.S., he still deserved a spot in the Games. “It’s kind of been a global effort to get him there,” says Poore.
Poore contacted the IOC to initiate the process. Miró, a veteran sports official from Spain, says that every Olympics, he receives dozens of claims about deserving Olympians who organized sporting bodies might be missing. “We have to be very, very diligent and selective,” says Miró. “We cannot act all the time.” The first step — verifying that the performance is true and that the athlete in question exists. Miró communicated with track and field’s world governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations to confirm Marial’s amazing debut-marathon time. Indeed, it was for real.
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Now, Marial needed a home. Marial could have run for Sudan, but he rejected that option immediately. Marial was not about to represent the country he fled. He says he lost 28 family members to violence or sickness during the civil war that compelled the south to split away from Sudan. When he was younger, Marial was kidnapped from the south and forced to work in Sudan as a child laborer. The Sudanese police once broke Marial’s jaw with rifle butts after they arrested his uncle, who was accused of working with south Sudanese rebels.
After fleeing to Egypt, Marial — a long shot to win the gold medal, but a possible top 2o finisher — was granted refugee status in the U.S. and moved to Concord, N.H., in 2001. He earned a scholarship to Iowa State University and became an All-American in his junior year in 2009. The president of Refugees International lobbied for Marial, and a day before the IOC made its decision to allow Marial to compete as an independent athlete, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen wrote the IOC a letter. “Given Mr. Marial’s story, his running under the flag of Sudan would be simply wrong,” Shaheen wrote. “I believe there is only one solution to the challenges facing his participation at the 2012 London Games: Mr. Marial should be permitted by the International Olympic Committee to participate as an independent participant, competing under the great Olympic flag.”