“He showed up in basketball shoes,” Cofrin recalled. “We went for a warm-up run together and then I put him on the track. I was still a respectable runner then, and I couldn’t catch him.”
After graduation, he moved to Flagstaff, a distance running mecca. He found a job working overnight at a group home for disabled adults and began training for the marathon.
* * *
When Marial registered for last October’s Twin Cities Marathon, he gave South Sudan as his nationality. When the international track federation posted the race results on its web site, it listed him as “SUD,” the abbreviation for Sudan.
Marial figures that occurred because race organizers could not find South Sudan in their system. It was not a surprise, since the country officially became independent just a few months earlier – July 9, 2011.
IOC rules say a country must have five recognized federations in sports on the Olympic program to have a recognized national Olympic committee, and it must have a national Olympic committee to enter athletes in the Olympics. South Sudan does not meet those criteria.
“Of course, the IOC is sensitive to the fact that there are other pressing issues for the country (South Sudan) to deal with,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said in an email.
Similar sensitivity allowed four East Timorese to compete in the 2000 Sydney Olympics as “individual Olympic athletes” who marched in the opening ceremony in plain, white uniforms behind the Olympic flag.
Their country had voted for independence from Indonesia Aug. 30, 1999. It did not yet have an independent government (another requirement for a national Olympic committee) when the Sydney Summer Games began Sept. 13, 2000.
In 1992, the IOC allowed athletes from three republics of the former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro) to compete as individuals in Barcelona.
According to Ciring Hiteng Ofuno, South Sudan’s minister of Culture, Youth and Sports, the country’s president, Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit wrote IOC president Jacques Rogge on behalf of Marial.
In an email, Ofuno called the communications with the IOC “fruitless.”
"It is unfortunate that an independent country is unable to be granted even the symbolic right to participate as a member of the world family of nations," Ofuno wrote. "It is a pity that institutions established by human beings can be so rigid to that extent."
Ofuno also acknowledged that the ministry’s staff must "redouble their efforts" in the process of joining international bodies like the IOC so the country does not miss such events in the future.
In later emails, the minister decried the idea of having Marial be linked to Sudan and "run under the flag of our harshest and brutal oppressors, the very reason why we separated." Ofuno called the IOC "extravagantly insensitive to the history of peoples."
Michel Gabaudan, the president of Refugees International, wrote Rogge Tuesday reiterating the reasons why it is inappropriate for Marial to compete for Sudan and asking that he be allowed to compete as an independent athlete.
"Numerous members of Mr. Marial’s family have been killed by Sudanese security forces, and he himself has suffered serious physical abuse at the hands of Sudanese police," Gabaudan’s letter said. "The threats against him are serious and were recognized as such when he gained refugee status in the United States. Therefore, asking Mr. Marial to submit once again to Sudanese authority as an Olympic athlete is not acceptable."
"Guor was given refuge for a reason, and it should not be the place of the IOC to unilaterally demand that he give up that protection in order to compete in the Olympics," said Brad Poore, an Auburn, California attorney who has been working to get Marial into the Olympics since meeting him at the Twin Cities race.
Running the marathon is more important to Marial than taking part in the July 27 opening ceremonies, although it would be nice if he had the chance to do both.
"I am hoping that the IOC could look at all I have gone through, the sacrifices I have made and see the possibility of what they can do for me," Marial said.
A 2012 update on an IOC fact sheet on development through sport notes the IOC has worked since 1996 with the U.N. High Commission on Refugees on sports programs for refugee camps and resettlements throughout the world.
That honorable initiative fits perfectly with this section in the fourth of five "Fundamental Principles of Olympism" as spelled out in the Olympic Charter, a principle Refugees International cited in its letter to Rogge:
The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
What better symbol of those ideals could there be, for the people of South Sudan and for the world, than giving Guor Marial the chance to show by his presence in London that his fledgling nation has a small place on the big Olympic stage?