Track & Field
Refugee Guor Marial ran and ran, until he didn't want to run any more. Then he ran again. Now he says he cannot imagine a day without running.
Today, he will run in the Olympic marathon, for a country that is not at the Olympics, and a family he has not seen for 20 years.
There is running, and there is fleeing. Marial began life in the Sudan, a country debilitated by vicious civil war. At eight, lured by the promise of a cow and a goat, he was kidnapped.
He spent a year in slave labour. With another boy, he escaped, hiding in a cave. "It was very scary, but at the same time I would rather an animal take me," he told USA Today.
"I was not scared of snakes or lions or anything. I would rather something kill me than a human come and take me."
Marial says he lost 28 relatives in the war. Later, while staying with an uncle, soldiers broke into the house, beating up his aunt and breaking Marial's jaw with the butt of a rifle.
He said he thought a state of war to be normal, because he knew no other. Life was an everyday battle for survival. Eventually, he and another uncle fled again, firstly to a refugee camp, then Egypt, then to the US. There, he swore he would never run again.
"I was not interested in running in the refugee camp," he said. "Running was to get away from danger. If you said to me to run two miles, I would say you were crazy." But he did run again.
Perhaps East Africans can't help it. He ran for - and to - high school in Concord, New Hampshire, surprising class-mates and his foster family. It was, he said, a way of making friends, of belonging. He learned to speak English by watching Sesame St. He lost socks at an even greater rate than other schoolboys do. Presumably he was not used to them.
A gym coach, impressed by Marial's cardiovascular fitness, directed him to the athletics coach. Marial resisted at first; he had come to the US for an education, not to run seriously.
When he relented, the athletics coach, a serious runner, found that could not keep pace with Marial. The coach was wearing running kit, Marial basketball shorts and shoes.
He fell in love with running; it became his calling. "If you say to me now not to run one day, it's impossible," he said. "I have to run. Maybe when I'm 80 or something, I'll stop running."
At Iowa State, he was a cross country all-American. Last year, he decided to try the marathon. At his first attempt, he ran 2 hours 14 minutes. At his next, earlier this year, he was even quicker. Both were inside the Olympic qualifying time.
For Marial, this was a triumph and a complication. He was an American resident, but not a citizen. He was asked to run for Sudan, but declined; it was the country that had decimated and scattered his family.
His country is South Sudan, but it has been independent for little more than a year, and - scarcely surprisingly - does not yet have an Olympic committee.
Refugee International and American supporters, including two senators, came to his aid, petitioning the IOC. Brad Poore, a fellow marathoner and Californian lawyer, was especially persistent. Poore is now with Marial in London.
In the parade of athletes at the opening gala, among the banners was one that read: "Independent Olympic athletes." Behind it were three athletes, all from the Netherlands Antilles, a country that has been dissolved.
Marial was meant to march with them, but could not; he did not even have a passport. Instead, he watched it on television from Flagstaff with friends and pizza.
But the paperwork was rushed through, and suddenly, Marial found himself in the athletes' village in London. One of the first people he bumped into was Usain Bolt. "I feel so fortunate to be here," he said.
Today, he will wear neutral, Olympic colours, but says that in his heart, he will be running for three countries, the Sudanese refugees who didn't make it out, the Americans who took him in, but most of all for South Sudan.
It is a country still in the fragile and tortuous process of getting itself up and running, and the attention the Olympics bring can only help.
It is what drives him.
"I hope the young generation in South Sudan will see me and dream high for years to come."
- © Fairfax NZ News