2012 Olympics | July 27 - August 12
Posted: Saturday August 11, 2012 5:32PM ; Updated: Saturday August 11, 2012 5:51PM
David Epstein

South Sudan's symbol of hope (cont.)

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Beginning to blossom

Olympic marathon runner Guor Marial arrives in London.
Brad Poore (left) worked to make Marial's story public and to get him to London in time for the Olympic marathon.
Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages)

Running more than 100 miles each week, and studying during every moment he could, Marial earned All-America honors in cross-country. By track season, though, he struggled with back pain. At the Big 12 Conference meet, he might run the 10,000 meters on Friday and shuffle off the track like an old man, only to return to score points in the 5,000 on Sunday. Ihmels suggests that the stress Marial was under might have contributed to his injury. Marial says that the trouble started in high school when a water container fell on his back during his job moving fruit boxes at a grocery store. Sitting for hours on end studying probably didn't help.

But Marial's back has gotten better. After college, he moved to Flagstaff, AZ., to train. He still has a job working 20 hours each week at a home for mentally impaired adults, but it's far less stressful and time-consuming than his college regimen. And so he has begun to blossom as a runner.

"People did not understand why I was not running fast times in high school or college," says the former cross-country All-America. "They do not understand how my life was day in and day out. If I could just train, I told my coach, I have potential."

After college, in October 2011, Marial hit the Olympic standard in the Twin Cities Marathon. It was the first time he'd ever run one. He also met Brad Poore, an excellent runner who was also a criminal defense attorney in California. Poore had traveled to Kenya and met Kenyans on the racing circuit, but he was intrigued by meeting a runner from South Sudan.

When Marial told Poore that he could run at the Olympics only for Sudan, Poore sprang into action. One of his most important steps was to try to get Marial's story to the public.

"I had reached out to a lot of media," Poore says. No one seized on the story. Then Philip Hersh, a veteran Olympic sports writer at the Chicago Tribune, heard about it while he was reporting a story on Lopez Lomong, a U.S. Olympic runner who was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and is now an American citizen. Hersh recognized that Marial's story was important.

In a July 18 article, just a week-and-a-half before the start of the London Games, Hersh introduced Marial to the world. As soon as that article hit, the non-profit Refugees International put out a press release about him and the media avalanche began. Just days later, the IOC sent a new invitation to Marial, this time saying that he could run as a South Sudanese citizen, but under the Olympic flag and in an Olympic uniform.

Then the real work began.

Marial had no passport or visa, so Poore started devouring information about regulations for refugees who want to travel. And that's when everyone started coming together. The British embassy in New York and the UK Border Agency pushed through a visa. Congressman Paul Gosar of Arizona, with the support of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the collaboration of the USOC, helped get refugee travel documents on the fast track.

(Marial's biggest concern once he received approval to run was his cell phone bill. All the interview requests put him hundreds of dollars over his limit. Poore says that Verizon wouldn't comp his bill, but let him pay $100 retroactively for unlimited minutes for the month.)

The travel documents did not arrive soon enough for Marial to make the Olympic opening ceremony, which he watched from Flagstaff, but they came in time for him to arrive in London on Friday, Aug. 3.

"My case was, I'd rather give up my dream and wait for another four years and either run for the United States or for South Sudan," says Marial, who hopes to eventually have dual citizenship. "That's what came to my head. I'd rather sit out and wait [than run for Sudan]."

Fortunately for him, he won't have to. He will run with the Olympic rings on his uniform. The interlocking circles, which represent the five continents of the world, are perfectly symbolic.

As Poore puts it: "Guor Marial is not a man without a team. The world is his team."

He continues. "We thank you for supporting him accordingly."

You're quite welcome.

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