Guor Marial is loneliest of long-distance runners at London Olympics

Guor Marial speaks to reporters as he arrives at Heathrow Airport in London last week.
(Andrew Cowie / AFP / Getty Images)

LONDON -- The Olympian without a country is not without a budget.

Guor Marial shows up for an interview at the Olympic village dressed in jeans and a polo shirt purchased from Target. He trains in old gear from Iowa State University. He will run the marathon Sunday in shoes purchased online.

“If you want the really good shoes, the ones you can use for the Olympics,” he says, “I can get those for a hundred bucks.”

The Olympian without a country is not without feelings.

Guor Marial has painfully felt the differences while wandering through the first week of these Olympics without any national logo on his sweats, without teammates at his side during training, and without any real buddies except an advisor who serves as his coach, sports committee and roommate.

“It does feel, like, lonely,” Marial says. “You’re not wearing anything showing your country and people are like, ‘Where are you from?’”

That part is easy. Guor Marial has arrived in London from the deepest, most passionate part of the Olympic spirit. He has arrived here from the ideals of a U.S. Olympic official, the passion of a Chicago Tribune sportswriter and the doggedness of a fellow runner.

This Olympian may be without country, but he is not without a home.

“The most amazing part, the best part, is just that I’m here,” he says. “It feels like the entire world brought me here.”

The entire world cut it close. Marial showed up only several days ago. He missed the opening ceremony because he wasn’t sure he would be allowed into England. He was officially entered in the Games only two weeks ago.

“It was tough, it was last-minute, but this is an example of people rising above the politics and doing what is good for sport,” said Brad Poore, Marial’s advisor, who met him at a marathon. “The right thing finally happened.”

Marial, 28, was born in what is now the year-old republic of South Sudan. The country is so new, there is no national Olympic committee. When he recorded an official Olympic marathon time last fall, the International Olympic Committee urged him instead to compete for the neighboring nation of Sudan.

One big problem. Marial lost eight of his 10 siblings during the civil war between south and north Sudan. As a child he was kidnapped and spent one year in Sudan as a laborer and another as an indentured servant. He escaped and was eventually granted refugee status, allowing him to move to New Hampshire with his uncle and cousin. He began running in high school, won a national indoor title at Iowa State and moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., to train for his Olympic dream, all while vowing to never forget his nightmare.

He would never, ever run for a Sudan government that nearly killed him and every member of his family.

“It is not right for me to do that,” he told the Tribune’s Philip Hersh. “It is not right for me to represent the country I refugeed from.”

Those quotes were taken from a blog that changed everything.

In mid-July, Marial and Poore had been continually spurned in their yearlong attempts to find an Olympic home. The IOC would not budge. Marial could not budge. The duo finally contacted Team USA’s ombudsman John Ruger, who couldn’t really change anything but figured he would try.

“I really do believe in the Olympic spirit, and this struck me as something that had to be done,” said Ruger.

When Hersh called him on a different matter, Ruger instead told him the story of Marial. After 25 years on the Tribune’s Olympic beat, Hersh knew what to do with it.

“I knew this was an Olympic story that needed to be told,” Hersh said.

Hersh wrote a lengthy blog post urging the IOC to allow Marial to compete under the Olympic flag. Within days, other outlets had picked up the story, and within a week, Hersh received an IOC email informing him that Marial had been admitted to the Olympics. Since Marial had no official country, the IOC asked Hersh to give him the news.

He called Poore instead, who relayed to Marial, who hugged Hersh tightly this week when they met for the first time in the Olympic village.

Said Marial: “He is a big, big reason I am here. It is amazing to finally see him.”

Said Hersh: “This feels about as good as anything I’ve ever done in my 40 years in the business.”

Marial missed marching in the opening ceremony with three other athletes displaced because of governmental changes in the Netherlands Antilles. He misses the ability to hang a flag from his village balcony like athletes in other countries. His parents, who live in a South Sudan village with no phone or television, are going to have to travel an hour down the road to watch his race.

His recent best time — 2 hours 12 minutes 55 seconds — will not put him among the marathon leaders. When the Games end, he is not sure he will have any money for souvenirs. When he returns to Flagstaff, he will go back to a job working the graveyard shift as an hourly wage caretaker at a home for developmentally disabled adults.

On Sunday he will wear the South Sudan’s new rainbow of colors in a beaded bracelet. He will wear the green, yellow and black colors of independent athletes on his singlet. If he reaches the podium, he will salute an Olympic flag that will not belong to him.

Yet the Olympian without a country says he will realize that perhaps nobody belongs here more.

“There are five rings on the Olympic flag,” he says. “I feel I am here because of them.”