In Guor Marial’s first marathon, he posted a time good enough to qualify for the Olympics. Perhaps that’s because when he was growing up, he has said, he got used to running from people who were trying to kill him.
When Marial, 28, lines up for the marathon on Sunday, the final day of the London Olympic Games, it will mark the culmination of a remarkable journey from his war-torn homeland in Africa to the United States and on to the biggest athletic competition in the world.
It will be just his third time running the 26.2-mile race. The road he’s traveled to get here must make that distance seem minuscule.
“I’m just going there and I will run the race and see what happens,” he said by phone last week from Flagstaff, Ariz., where he was training.
Marial will be competing under special rules as an “independent Olympic athlete,” representing no nation and running under the Olympic flag. His birthplace of South Sudan is a brand-new country, fresh from decades of conflict, without its own Olympic team. His adopted home, the United States, where he discovered his athletic gift, hasn’t made him a citizen.
If Marial wins the gold – that isn’t expected, but then again, little about his story is – the Olympic anthem would play on the medal stand. Perhaps that’s only fitting for a man whose story seems to epitomize the Olympic ideal.
“Guor Marial is not a man without a team,” said his friend Brad Poore, a Sacramento, Calif.-area lawyer who led the fight to get him invited to London. “The world is his team.”
Marial was born in 1984 in a small village in Unity state in what is now South Sudan. At the time, though, his village was still part of Sudan, the vast, unruly East African nation that has been at war with itself for decades. In the conflict pitting the northern government against southern rebels, hardly any family was spared – certainly not Marial’s own.
He lost eight of his 10 brothers and sisters, and many other relatives, either because of fighting or the privation and disease it unleashed. His family tried to send him to the north, to live with an uncle, but he was captured along the way and forced to work as a laborer. He was barely 10 years old.
He managed to return to the south only to be captured again, this time by a Sudanese soldier, whose family used him as an unpaid servant.
When he finally made it to the north, Sudanese authorities accused his uncle, a humanitarian worker, of helping the southern rebels. Security forces raided their home and attacked Marial and his aunt, breaking his jaw with the butts of their rifles. He and his aunt fled to Egypt, where they lived under the auspices of the United Nations before the United States took them in as refugees in 2001.
Marial enrolled in high school in Concord, N.H., at age 17 and got a 40-hour-a-week job stocking produce at a grocery store to send money back to his family in Sudan. He’d never really run before, but his P.E. teacher noticed something unusual.
“He said, ‘You can run and run and never get tired,’” Marial recalled.
The cross-country coach, Rusty Cofrin, called him in for a tryout. Marial showed up in basketball shoes, and Cofrin looked skeptical. But once he started running, “the kid just floated,” Cofrin said.
After a long circuit around a park and 1.5 miles on the track, Cofrin, an accomplished runner, saw that Marial seemed barely to have broken a sweat. “If you feel good, take off,” Cofrin said.
The teenager left his coach in the dust.
“At that point I knew, this is a keeper,” said Cofrin, now 54.
Cofrin later discovered that Marial had a chronic back injury from when he was beaten by Sudanese security forces. But he was a fierce competitor, leading the Concord High cross-country and track teams to their best results in years. When his aunt and uncle moved to Florida, he moved in with a teammate, and later lived with Cofrin and his wife, whom he called “Mrs. Coach.”
“He’s an incredible kid,” Cofrin said. “As a coach, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime kid.”
He went on to Iowa State University, where he was a cross-country All-America and earned a chemistry degree. But he put his plans for graduate school on hold to pursue running.
He moved to Flagstaff, where the high altitude and dry heat make an ideal environment for distance runners. His days are spent training, his nights working at a facility for mentally challenged adults. He doesn’t have a coach, and mostly he runs alone.
When he showed up at the Twin Cities Marathon in October, he had never run a race longer than 10 kilometers. At the pasta dinner on the eve of the race, he met Poore, an elite distance runner who’d spent time working in Africa.
“I was honestly a little concerned for him,” Poore said.
But Marial, 5-foot-11 and about 130 pounds, took off with the lead group of runners and finished the race in 2:14:32, fast enough to qualify for the Olympics. In June, at a marathon in San Diego, he shaved more than a minute and a half off his time.
Yet still it seemed unlikely that he’d make it to London. South Sudan finally achieved independence from Sudan last year but was still more a concept than a functioning state, lacking all but the most basic infrastructure, and it wasn’t fielding an Olympic team. While Marial was a permanent resident of the United States, he wasn’t a citizen and therefore couldn’t join the American squad.
Oddly, Sudan, the very country whose security forces kidnapped and beat Marial, chasing him and his relatives from their homeland, offered Marial a spot on its Olympic team. As politely as possible, he refused.
The offer was particularly strange because the Sudanese government is in the process of trying to expel hundreds of thousands of southern refugees from its land on the grounds that the war is over. Many of them left the south decades ago and are uncertain about returning. If the Khartoum government follows through on its threat, these refugees could become stateless.
“Yet they were prepared to have Guor, who is South Sudanese, come and fly the colors of Sudan at the Olympics because he is a brilliant athlete. There is some cynicism in that,” said Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International, an advocacy group. “Guor was very dignified in his refusal.”
Last month, after Poore brought Marial’s case to the group’s attention, Gabaudan wrote a letter to International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge calling for Marial to be granted independent athlete status. In 2000, the committee had allowed athletes from East Timor, which wasn’t yet an independent state, to compete under the Olympic flag.
Five days later, the IOC decided to invite Marial to compete. His travel documents didn’t arrive in time for him to make the opening ceremonies, so he remained at home in Flagstaff, training and taking calls from reporters – so many, in fact, that he went 1,000 minutes over his cellphone limit.
“He’s just trying to accommodate everyone,” Poore said. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
He arrived in London last Friday and was reunited with his friend and fellow runner Lopez Lomong, another refugee from southern Sudan, who carried the U.S. flag at the 2008 opening ceremonies in Beijing. Together they represent the dreams of their homeland even if few there will be able to watch them – perhaps not even Marial’s parents, who remain in their village in Unity state.
Marial hasn’t seen his parents in more than a decade, and he hasn’t spoken to them since he got the Olympic invitation. Their village is too remote for cellphone service, so he’s passed messages through friends and relatives and he thinks “they are aware of the situation.” Sometime this week, he was told, they’ll set off on foot to the town of Panrieng, the nearest town that has a TV and satellite dish – a 30-mile walk that could take two days.
“Hopefully, they’ll find a TV,” he said, “and hopefully the network is providing Olympic coverage.”
Marial figures not to contend for a medal amid the world-class field on Sunday. He insists he has no target time in mind; he just wants to run his best race. The “man without a country” in fact believes he has people on two continents cheering him on.
“Right now I have two countries,” Marial said. “The U.S. opened their arms, showed me the opportunity and a better life, a great education. They showed me sport. And then at the same time, in my heart, I always say I am South Sudanese no matter what.”