There could be a similarly uplifting moment the final day of the 2012 Olympics involving another refugee from that conflict who, like Lomong, is a runner who wound up in the United States after growing up in what was then the southern part of Sudan but is now part of an independent country.
The 2008 U.S. flag bearer was abducted by guerrillas who wanted to turn him into a boy soldier; escaped into refugee camps in Kenya; and went from there to a family in upstate New York, U.S. citizenship, a college degree, a career as a professional runner and a second Olympic appearance in London.
Because he was a U.S. citizen, all Lomong needed to compete in the Olympics was earn a place at the U.S. trials and meet the qualifying time standard.
Marial, a 2011 graduate of Iowa State University who now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, met the Olympic “A” standard for the marathon last fall by finishing fifth at the Twin Cities Marathon in 2 hours, 14 minutes. 32 seconds. And he ran faster, 2:12.55, while finishing sixth at the San Diego Rock n’ Roll Marathon in June.
But his case is much more complicated than Lomong’s, although the International Olympic Committee can find a simple solution with flexibility and compassion similar to its actions allowing athletes from East Timor to compete at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Marial’s homeland now is an independent nation, the year-old Republic of South Sudan. Its government has had more pressing issues than the process of setting up a national Olympic committee recognized by the IOC. Such recognition is effectively a pre-requisite for Olympic participation.
“I completely understand the side of the IOC and the side of the South Sudan, which is a country starting from zero, and it is very hard for them to form (the structures) the IOC needs,” Marial said.
The IOC is trying to work out a way for Marial to compete for the Sudan, which contacted him after seeing the Twin Cities result. That is unacceptable to Marial for both emotional reasons and possible legal ramifications affecting his refugee status and his application for U.S. citizenship. It also is unacceptable to the government of South Sudan.
Marial said he told the Sudan Olympic Committee he was grateful for their invitation but had to decline it. When the IOC later told Marial he could join the Sudanese delegation, he replied, “It’s not right for me to do that. It’s not right for me to represent the country I refuged from.”
Especially given his account of the circumstances leading to the flight, as expressed in the narrative that follows.
* * *
Guor Marial, 28, is a Dinka tribesman born April 15, 1984 in Pan de Thon, a village in Unity State in what is now South Sudan, bordering Sudan to the north. His family would be ravaged by the civil wars that began in 1955 and continued, with an 11-year break, until 2005.
Eight of Marial’s 10 full brothers and sisters died as a result of the war, some killed by Sudanese security forces, others by disease or hunger exacerbated by the conflict. A dozen or so other members of his extended family died under similar circumstances.
Marial’s family tried to send him in 1993 to live with an uncle in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. It took him three years to get there.
In 1994, he was kidnapped and taken to what now is Sudan as a child laborer. After escaping back to southern Sudan, he was taken again to Sudan in 1995 by a soldier and the soldier’s family, who forced Marial to work for them unpaid for a year. After returning a second time to Bentiu, now the capital of Unity State, he finally got to Khartoum.
In 1999, his uncle – a doctor – was arrested and accused of collaborating with south Sudanese rebels. The next day, Sudanese police burst into his uncle’s home and broke Marial’s jaw and his aunt's collarbone with rifle butts. After Marial spent several days in a hospital, he and his aunt fled to Egypt. His uncle joined them eight months later, having feigned death to survive when several prisoners were taken to the desert and killed.
Marial, a cousin and his uncle would be granted refugee status by the United States. They arrived in New Hampshire in 2001 – Marial remembers the exact date, July 19. When the uncle moved, Marial remained in Concord, N.H. He would live with the families of high school teammates for two years and the family of his high school coach, Rusty Cofrin, for one.
One day in the spring of his sophomore year at Concord High School, a gym teacher marveled that no cardiovascular activity would wear Marial out. The teacher recommended Cofrin give Marial a track tryout.
“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.”
Marial’s high school running, including a national indoor title at two miles, caught the attention of Iowa State coach Corey Ihmels. Marial got a scholarship to run cross-country and track for the Cyclones, winning All-America honors while earning a degree in chemistry.
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?