The Olympic Runner Without A Country
By Janice Baker
August 02, 2012

Photo courtesy of KNAU
Guor Marial speaks with KNAU'S Janice Baker at the Northern Arizona University track in Flagstaff, Ariz.

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- A Sudanese refugee is running in the Olympics without representing a country. He lives in Flagstaff and refused to represent Sudan on moral grounds. He hoped to represent the newly-formed South Sudan, but that country is not yet part of the Olympics.

Guor Marial is a runner. He glides around a blue turf oval track. His steps are quick and light. His back gleams with sweat in the July morning sun. He jokes with his training partner.

“Tired … that’s life man. Yeah, that’s life,” he laughs.

“He doesn’t mind because it is part of the game,” said his training partner Fidele Jefferson. “ Tired and keeps going.”

Marial is running to London and the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. And he’s running from memories of a Sudanese refugee camp, a decades-long civil war, and the loss of 28 of his family members. Marial qualified for the Olympic marathon competition in June, after running the San Diego Marathon with a time of 2:12:55.

“He has even the potential running faster than this,” Jefferson boasts. Marial, he says is “much, much faster than 2:12. He was in shape, probably 2:08.”

Marial has been running for most of his life, but never considered it a sport.

“That’s all African kids, most African kids, they just active all the time, it’s their background, it’s how they grew up,” Marial said.

A high school coach in Concord, N.H., where Marial arrived at age 16, changed that. Marial said it took three months of convincing before he finally took the coach’s advice.

“I went to and tried the team out and I made it,” he said.

After high school, he ran long distance for Iowa State, where he also earned a chemistry degree. He moved to Flagstaff last summer to begin training for his Olympic dream of running the marathon.

In his first-ever race, the Twin Cities Marathon last October, he came in fifth. He has no coach -- he developed a training program from his experiences running cross country in high school and college.

“They are a different level of workout, but those kinds of things give me hints to be able to design my own program,” Marial said. “All I just need to do is make it longer.”

Marial is unable to run for the United States because he is not a citizen. The North Sudan team invited him to join them, but he refused on moral grounds.

“I just tell them in a simple way, in a nice way, because I cannot be angry with them, I cannot just say ‘Oh, why you contact me, you know I am from South Sudan, and you guys killed my people?’ I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “It’s something political and I’m just an athlete, and I’m a refugee. That’s my stand.”

His last chance to compete lay with a request to the International Olympic Committee, which granted Marial independent status to run under the IOC flag. The IOC has granted independent status to athletes in past Olympic competitions in 1992 and 2002.

If Marial were not pursuing his Olympic dream, you would likely find him in a classroom.

“I love chemistry,” he said. “I would be in graduate school, in the lab. But I am running for the people.”

Guor Marial, transforming his past into possible Olympic gold, leaving behind war, disease and brutality.

“You know, running is a way to escape from those things,” his training partner Jefferson said. “You cannot dwell on them for a long time. If you dwell on them, you have your life on the line, you know? Is better to keep moving, and live a normal life.”

Marial will compete in the Men's Marathon Aug. 12.

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