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South Sudan marathoner is an Olympian without a country

By Faith Karimi, CNN
July 23, 2012 -- Updated 1117 GMT (1917 HKT)
  • "Even if I am not going to carry or wear the flag, I will be the flag of my nation," he says
  • He rejects an offer to run under Sudan's flag
  • He says the Sudanese government killed his relatives
  • The Olympic committee allows him to compete under the Olympic flag

(CNN) -- Even though he will not compete in the London Olympics under his country's flag, South Sudan native Guor Marial basks with pride as the first athlete from the world's youngest nation in the global arena.

The marathon runner was born in what is now South Sudan, which split from Sudan last year and does not yet have a national Olympic body. He is a permanent resident of the United States, where he fled 11 years ago to escape the bloody conflict between the two neighbors that left millions dead.

The 28-year-old does not hold U.S. citizenship, and rejected an offer to run under Sudan's flag following the nation's bitter divorce with his homeland.

"Never," he said of his refusal to run for Sudan. "For me to even consider that is a betrayal. My family lost 28 members in the war with Sudan. Millions of my people were killed by Sudan forces. I can only forgive, but I cannot honor and glorify a country that killed my people."

Since he cannot run for his country, and does not have a South Sudanese passport, the International Olympic Committee granted him permission to run as an independent.

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The decision means he will carry the Olympic flag, wear a uniform that has no emblem of any nation and if he wins, the Olympic hymn will play, he said. Not South Sudan's. Not the United States'.

"The fact that I will be in the Olympics means a lot not just to me, but to my country, which has gone through so much," he said in a phone call from Flagstaff, Arizona, where he is training. "Even if I am not going to carry or wear the flag, I will be the flag of my nation. South Sudan will be in my heart."

Marial left home in 1993. His story of survival from the war has taken him across different countries, including Egypt, where he sought refuge before the United States granted him asylum in 2001.

He attended high school in New Hampshire and decided to give competitive running a try after years of "running away from conflict," he said. He later went to Iowa State University, where he had an athletic scholarship and was an All-American cross-country runner.

The Olympian has not seen his parents since 1993, when he first fled what is now South Sudan, but they may get a chance to catch a glimpse of him after decades.

"I'm hoping they will at least see me run in the Olympics," he said. "They live in a village with no electricity and no televisions. But they plan to walk to the nearest big town about 40 miles away so that they can watch me on television."

Video: South Sudan's growing pains

While the Olympic committee has approved his participation, some hurdles remain.

"The challenge now is to get his UK visa and the U.S. travel documents issued on time," said Brad Poore, a California lawyer and friend who spearheaded the effort to get him to the Olympics.

An ideal situation would be for him to get to London a few days in advance so he can train, the lawyer said. The opening ceremony in London is Friday, but Marial's race will be held August 12.

Poore, who is also a competitive runner, met Marial in Minnesota during a marathon in October.

Though Marial qualified for the Olympics and he did not, they remained friends and he "wrote some e-mails" to launch the campaign to get him to London. His e-mails caught the attention of New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who wrote a letter to the International Olympic Committee to support Marial's bid.

"It's been a roller coaster ride. I'm glad we've been able to get this approved," Poore said. "He is such an inspiration. His story and what he has been through ... the more I get to know him as a person, the more motivated I am to do this for him."

Marial is not the first person to run under the Olympic flag.

In 1992, the Winter Olympics in France and the Summer Olympics in Barcelona included competitors from the Unified Team -- athletes from the former Soviet Union -- who took part under the Olympic flag.

In Sydney in 2000, East Timor athletes wore plain white uniforms as they participated under the Olympic flag.

And now Marial, who is confident he will make it to London in time.

And even though he will not have a visible flag, a special object will don his arm when the starting gun goes off.

If allowed, he plans to wear a thin, black wristband emblazoned with his name and colors of the South Sudan flag.

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