Unflagged and Unflagging

Guor Marial’s marathon

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Darryl Webb / REUTERS

Guor Marial, 28, smiles in his apartment under a South Sudan flag in Flagstaff, Arizona July 21, 2012. The marathon runner born in what is now South Sudan will be allowed to run under the Olympic flag in London, the International Olympic Committee said on Saturday.

Guor Marial hails from south Sudan, which just celebrated its first birthday as a country, but he will compete as an independent athlete at the London Olympics, under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). “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 but is not a U.S. citizen. He does not have citizenship in or a passport from South Sudan. Even if he did, he could not compete for South Sudan, since it has no Olympic team. An Olympic committee is not atop the nation’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 a torrid 2:14:32—fast enough to meet the Olympic qualifying standard. So Poore took up his case right away. “It’s kind of been a global effort to get him there,” says Poore.

Miró, a veteran sports official from Spain, says that every Olympics, he receives claims about deserving athletes whom organized sporting bodies might be missing. “We have to be very, very diligent and selective,” he says. “We cannot act all the time.” The first step is to verify that the athlete and performance in question exist. Miró was able to confirm Marial’s amazing debut-marathon time with the International Association of Athletics Federations. He was for real.
Next, Marial needed a home. He could have run for Sudan, but he rejected that option immediately. He was not about to represent the country he’d fled. He says he lost 28 family members to violence or sickness during the civil war that compelled the South to split from the North. When he was a child, he was kidnapped from the South and forced to work in Sudan as a laborer.

After fleeing to Egypt, Marial was granted refugee status in the U.S. and moved to Concord, N.H., in 2001. He earned a scholarship to Iowa State and became an All-American in his junior year in 2009. “I am not wearing the uniform of a country, but that does not change who I am representing in my heart,” he says. “I will be running in London for the people of South Sudan and the people of the United States. I have so much appreciation for both countries.”

Marial is not the first athlete to compete under the Olympic flag. Six former Soviet republics, for example, competed together in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Still, Marial is unique. Since he holds no passport or citizenship, he’s really the first Olympian without any true country. Kenyan runners are favored to win the marathon, but that doesn’t faze him. “There could be 10 Kenyans, but there is only ever one Guor Marial,” he says. And if Marial runs a strong race, the whole world will be looking to claim him.