An Interview with South Sudanese Marathoner Guor Marial


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Guor pointing to the flag of South Sudan Photo: Courtesy of Guor Marial

Guor Marial has no idea how many interviews he’s done in the last two weeks, but he knows it’s a lot. He is doing them to make sure people are familiar with his story and to raise awareness about his country, South Sudan. If you have not heard of him, Marial is the marathoner living in Flagstaff, Arizona who will run under the Olympic flag because South Sudan can not field a team.

According to numerous published reports, Marial spent his childhood running away from things. Sudanese soldiers fired guns and burnt his village in South Sudan many times, leading him to flee into the bush at night. Eventually, he moved in with his uncle in Khartoum, where Sudanese police broke into their apartment and broke his jaw with a rifle. Over the course of the country's civil war, Marial said 28 of his relatives were killed or died of sickness. Marial and his uncle fled to Egypt, and in 2001, landed in New Hampshire.

He tried out for the track team at Concord High and started running towards things. He won the New Hampshire state cross country championship, the two-mile race at the National Scholastic Indoor Championships in 2005, and earned a scholarship from Iowa State. In October of 2011, he ran the Twin Cities Marathon and finished under the Olympic qualifying time, clocking in at 2:14:32. He then improved his time (2:12:55) in the Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon in June of this year. Unfortunately, his country, South Sudan, had no Olympic committee and thus, no representation in the Games. The IOC said he could run for Sudan. He said thank you, but no. A lawyer named Brad Poore took up his case, sent it to journalists, and put it in front of politicians. “A lot of this has to do with Brad Poore, who is special, for his commitment, for pitching my case in person, for taking on my case personally,” says Marial. “My case is nothing without Brad Poore.”

Guor and Brad Poore Photo: Courtesy of Guor Marial

Under pressure, the IOC changed their tune and invited Marial to run under the Olympic flag. He said yes. Then he said yes to countless interviews that had him recounting his past. All of that remembering has come at a cost, so he asked if we could switch up the conversation when I called. “I know what happened in the past, it’s very important to tell people and for people to hear, but as I recover and tell people over and over and over again, it’s creating a personal problem emotionally for me,” he says. “So I think it would be a good idea to talk about sport, which is what I want to do, and what is motivating me, rather than the past.”

At what point did you have the dream to run in the Olympics?
It was back in high school. I started to know that running is a sport, and not just something that people did to save their life, like I used to. That’s when I started saying, OK. I watched the Olympics in 2004, and I watched the Boston Marathon in high school, and those brought me a different way of seeing running. Those moments just kind of created a dream state, that running is something that I want to do. I will continue the dream to try and run in the Olympics some day.

Then, when I went to college my freshman year, me and my freshman roommate wrote on a piece of paper and posted it on our wall. It said, we are going to go to the Olympics in 2012. We were basically just joking, and we just left it there, and you know, then I had it in the back in my mind that one day I wanted the opportunity.

What will running in the Olympics mean for you personally?
It will mean a lot. It will mean a lot to the people of South Sudan, and the whole community where I grew up here: to the New Hampshire community, to the Iowa State community, and the community where I’m living right now in Flagstaff. It will mean a lot to everyone who supports and has supported me to this point. It would not be possible for me to make my dream come true without the support of all the people of United States, including the senator of New Hampshire. Some other people were involved all over the world. It’s going to be very, very special to line up and people will have an opportunity to see me. They will say, OK, this is the man we’re reading about. It’s just going to be a good thing for the refugees and the South Sudanese people.

What’s your goal?
I’m going to be open-minded. There is no specific goal. I am in a daydream with everything. It hasn’t hit me yet. It’s something that is going to be different when I board a British airliner to go to London, but at the moment, it is still not, it is still hard to believe that I’m going. This just happened really fast. Nine days ago, or something, it was not going to happen. So the preparation with media, it’s very hard, and it’s just right for me to go there and be open-minded. If something happens, it just happens. It’s the marathon and it’s the Olympic games, so I think anything can happen.

When the IOC told you could run for Sudan, how hard was that moment and the decision?
Well, it was very hard, but at the same time I was thankful to the IOC for the suggestion and to Sudan for coming forward to try to give me the opportunity…but at the same time….all it brought was the memory, the childhood memory, why I’m here, and why have I lived 20 years without my parents [his parents are alive, but he has not seen them], those kind of things. That’s what made my decision to say, no, I could not do that. It just, it wasn’t something right for me. I have to cover my head and really appreciate the sincere invitation, but it wasn’t just like I could give up the two million people that died for our freedom and the creation of South Sudan. There’s still eight or ten million or more in South Sudan at the moment, and I’d rather sacrifice to represent those people and the people who died, and it is my responsibility to take that initiative.

Guor, 11, with his brother Photo: Courtesy of Guor Marial

What do you think your running in the Olympics will mean for the people of South Sudan?
It will mean a lot. If you see my Facebook now, there are so many South Sudanese congratulating me. And some of them have tears. They call me on the phone and cry on the phone and say, God will bless you. It is important to them. They know, for me being there alone, that the South Sudan flag is being raised at home. So it’s very, very special. And I’m pretty sure that every single South Sudanese is going to watch that race, and they are going to find somehow to watch that race. That’s why there are such good feelings. That’s why it’s very, very exciting for me to have the South Sudanese. I’m just so fortunate that God gave me this chance to show my people that there’s other people that have freedom, including more than 20 of my relatives and brothers and sisters spirits that will be watching me. They will be happy and they will say, OK, this person is doing what we died for. It’s going to be such a good feeling.

For more on current conditions in South Sudan, read “A History of Violence,” by Jon Lee Anderson.

For more on Marial, check out this collection of stories from the Concord Monitor.

—Joe Spring