Olympic marathoner Guor Marial is South Sudan's symbol of hope
The first Olympian from South Sudan escaped horror and tragedy in his country
Marial lost many relatives in a civil war with Sudan, for whom he refused to run
Since moving to the US, he's faced challenges in the classroom and on the track
Three weeks ago, Guor Marial was not on the invite list for the London Olympics. He had done his part. He'd made the Olympic A qualifying standard (2:15:00) in both of the marathons he had run -- a 2:14:32 last fall in Minnesota and a 2:12:55 in San Diego in June. But it still took a runner/lawyer friend in California, a journalist in Chicago, the British consulate in New York, a non-profit in D.C., a congressman in Arizona, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the United States and International Olympic committees to enable him to compete in London as a symbol of hope that the world can be brought together.
On Sunday morning at 11, on The Mall that runs to Buckingham Palace, Marial will toe the starting line of the Olympic marathon course. He will be the very first Olympian from the 13-month-old nation of South Sudan, and while he will not contend for the gold, he will do something far more rare. He will place the first stone -- or be the first stone -- in the building of a country's athletic tradition.
South Sudan has no national Olympic committee and thus is technically not eligible to send athletes to the Games. When the IOC first learned of Marial's qualification time, it initially offered the 28-year-old a chance to run for Sudan. Without a moment's thought, he declined. The number of his relatives who were killed in the civil war that ravaged southern Sudan "would reach almost 40 people," he says. "And that's not including extended family."
But the Olympics are every runner's dream, so even though he politely declined, Marial sat down and wrote thank you letters to officials in Sudan and to the IOC. And then people started coming together for him so that he could complete an improbable journey to London.
It wasn't the first of Marial's improbable journeys.
"How did I end up living in Concord, New Hampshire, without my parents?"
That's the opening line of Guor Marial's high school essay entitled My Story. It practically screams with bewilderment, as if Marial is asking himself how his life could have changed so much, so quickly. How could he have escaped civil war in southern Sudan -- a war that raged for almost a half century before it ended in 2005 -- when so many of his relatives perished, falling prey to illness, starvation, and Sudanese soldiers?
"It was very clear to me when I was 5," Marial says, "that people are dying and there are people killing us."
In his essay, Marial wrote: "During the school year, we had to flee the town almost every day because of the gunfire. There was a lot of violence in that place. I still remember being hungry from having no food to eat. People were killed, and we had to run into the jungle and sleep with no bed or even anything to cover us. We used to run into the jungle that was full of yellow mosquitoes and black-brown butterflies, which if they bit you, your skin bleeds right away. Therefore my dad chose for me to go and stay with my uncle so I could be safe, go to school and get a good education. He assumed that if I stayed there, I might end up dead like my older brother who got killed in May of 2000 and like my other seven brothers and sisters who were killed in the civil war."
It was 1993 when Marial's father decided that his son would go to stay with his uncle in Khartoum. But he had no money for the bus from Bentiu, in what is now South Sudan, nor did he have enough food to sustain Marial for the 450-mile trip. So Marial, at just 8 years old, started working for a Sudanese soldier, ironing his clothes and running errands.
In the fall of '94, Marial says, he and some other boys crossed the Nile River to get mangos and nuts -- as they often did -- when they came across a group of Arabic-speaking nomadic men. Marial did not speak Arabic well, but understood that the men were offering food and milk, if only the boys would walk to their camp six miles away. When they arrived, the boys were separated. The next day they were put to work, taking care of goats and sheep and herding cows.
"It was slaving, basically," Marial says.
After a week, Marial says he and another boy made a plan to escape. On a Sunday morning, they ran into the woods and hid in a cave.
"When we were coming [to the camp] we were coming with the sun," Marial says. "So we wait until the sun come up, and go in the opposite direction."
By the evening, the boys had found the Nile, and they followed it back to Bentiu.
Again, Marial started working for a soldier, this time an officer and his wife, fetching water for showers, preparing lunch, shopping for food, and then cleaning shoes at the market to make a bit of money on the side. At least the man let Marial go to school, which was a six-mile run each way. But when he told his employer that he would like his wages and to go back to his family, the man locked him in the house, Marial says.
One day when the door was left open, Marial escaped to a friend's house, found one of his mother's cousins from Khartoum, and went north with the man, arriving three years later than his father had intended.