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Sports

An Olympian without a country

Displaced by war, marathon runner Guor Marial is stateless. Despite having no country to call home, he'll compete in London under the Olympic banner, the first time independent athletes have participated since 2000.

Marial was born in what was then Sudan, and is known today as South Sudan. Despite later fleeing to the United States, Marial is what is known as "stateless," a person who does not possess citizenship from any nation.

In 1994, Marial escaped from a Sudanese child labor camp, running away during the night with another child about a week after being kidnapped by gunmen. The pair hid in a cave until dawn, later following the path of the sun.

"I used to hate running," said Marial of the escape in an interview with The Associated Press. "I was running back home to save my life."

After returning to present-day South Sudan, Marial was taken again in 1995, and forced to work as a slave for a year. Four years later, in 1999, his uncle was arrested and accused of aiding South Sudanese rebels. The next day, police burst into the uncle's home and broke Marial's jaw and his aunt's collarbone. Marial and his aunt then fled north to Egypt. Eight months later, his uncle joined them after feigning death when several prisoners were taken to the desert and killed. Finally, in 2001, Marial, his uncle and a cousin came to the US as refugees. Marial left behind 28 members of his family who had been killed in the violence of the Sudanese government, including eight of his ten brothers and siblings.

He was granted asylum in the US, and went on to attend high school and college there, where he developed his talents as a runner.

Hopes for a nation

The 2012 Games are only the third time independent athletes have competed at the Olympics, and the first since 2000. Three athletes from the Netherlands Antilles will join Marial under the independent banner in London, as their country was dissolved in 2010. In 2016, they'll be eligible to compete as part of either the Netherlands or Aruba.

Marial, however, is truly stateless. Despite living in the US, he is not a citizen. He has no passport. The only documentation allowing him to even be in the country is a "lawful permanent resident" card, also known as a green card. He was offered a chance to represent Sudan at the Games, but the 28-year-old refused.

A flag with the Olympic Rings flaps in the wind in Sydney, Australia.

The Olympic flag represents independent athletes

Even though he'll officially be "independent" in London, Marial sees himself as representing his birthplace of South Sudan.

"It's very emotional and it raises high hopes for the young kids [in South Sudan] especially," he told Reuters.

South Sudan is the world's newest country, formed in July 2011 after a decades-long civil war in Sudan. Lacking even basic infrastructure in many regions, the North African nation of around eight million has not had time to form an Olympic Committee. As a prerequisite for a nation to compete at the Olympics, it must have a National Olympic Committee (NOC).

Marial believes his independent participation is a victory for South Sudan nonetheless.

"It means a lot... and for me it means a lot to glorify the people who died for their freedom and people who lost their lives," said Marial in the same Reuters interview. "To have someone at the Olympics after one year of independence and everyone will see that and even the whole world will see it. That's amazing."

While Marial's hopes for South Sudan are high, his gold medal chances are probably less so. He improved his personal best at a race in San Diego, California in June, finishing in two hours, 12 minutes and 55 seconds. Fast as that may sound, it's still more than six minutes slower than the current Olympic record holder, Kenya's Samuel Wanjiru, in the 42.195-kilometer (26.22-mile) event.

But Marial said his participation is about more than just Olympic medals in the August 12 race.

"Most important [are] the people of South Sudan. They struggle so much, so if I can accomplish something, I can help," he told British newspaper "The Daily Telegraph." "That's why every morning, I get up, I put on my shoes and I train."

Author: Benjamin Mack
Editor: Matt Zuvela