In Praise of Guor Marial

Olympian Glory
Olympian Glory

Guor Marial ran the Marathon at this year’s Olympic Games in London, UK. A few excited South Sudanese went to see him represent our nation.

Unusually for what has been described as the wettest summer since records began, the sun shone bright. Only a week earlier, the women’s marathon had taken place under unseasonably torrential conditions. But that day was different. That day would prove exceptional, for our very own olympian would be competing on the streets of London. And it was as if the rain soaked clouds had been banished from the city as we began to assemble in the shade of the Palace of Westminster, seat of both houses of the British Parliament.

The story of Guor Marial has made international news. As a member of the United Nations, South Sudan was automatically accepted into the International Olympics Committee (IOC) but found itself unable to send athletes to London 2012 as it couldn’t organise its own National Olympic Committee (NOC) in time. Although he is currently resident in America, Guor could not compete under the American flag as he is not an American citizen.

The IOC granted South Sudanese athletes permission to compete under the flag of Sudan, and the Sudanese NOC signalled that it was willing to accept Guor, but he refused. Guor could not in good conscience compete for a country he felt was directly accountable for the deaths of 28 members of his family – including 8 siblings.

After much wrangling, the IOC eventually conceded and at the eleventh hour, granted permission for Guor to compete at the London Games as an independent athlete under the Olympic flag.

Twenty or so South Sudanese gathered by the side of the road, nearly all carrying our national flag, the largest of which (carefully hand sewn) were draped over the railings or fluttering uneasily on makeshift poles. Some wore clothes, again hand sewn, in the colours of the national flag. All were chattering, joking, laughing and eagerly anticipating the spectacle to come. This little corner of England was for the next two and half hours truly South Sudanese land. All around, amongst the British who had come out in droves, was an international crowd. Across the road were a gaggle of Eritreans, a little further down, was a crowd of expectant Kenyan’s already savouring a victory that was sure to come, dancing in a sea of red, green and black.

Though there was 30 minutes remaining until the start of the Marathon, we could not contain ourselves and raucous songs in praise of Guor Marial and South Sudan rang out near continuously, drowning out all and echoing across Parliament Square. The reserved British, overtaken by the Olympic spirit were amused and impressed by our exuberance, some even joining in although they could not possibly understand what they were singing. A Japanese film crew, touched by the story of Guor and his struggle to claim a seat at the Olympic table stayed with us throughout the whole race.

And then the race started. All craned to catch a glimpse at our Olympian as the pack thundered past. And a roar sounded out as he cantered by, somewhere near the front of the pack, with a wide and buoyant smile, waving excitedly at his fellow country men and women. Three more times, he sped past, each time acknowledging our support, here with a bow, there with a kiss blown at the crowd. There was not the slightest hint of disappointment that with each pass, Guor had inexorably dropped back, far out of range of the leading Kenyan’s and Stephen Kiprotich, the Ugandan who would eventually won Olympic gold.

When the race finished, we all reached for our phones, furiously checking the final positions. We then marched down the middle of Parliament Street towards Trafalgar Square, waving our flags and singing our songs, all the while cheered on by peoples of all nationalities, eager to know who we were and what country we represented.

One man, broke down in tears when he saw us coming down the road. He told us that he had researched the story and the suffering of South Sudan and was overcome by the spectacle of us celebrating our new nation and our new sporting heroes.

A week later when Guor Marial (along with the inspirational Luol Deng) attended a post-Olympics lunch hosted by the London South Sudanese community in honour of our Olympians, we learnt something truly astonishing. That unfavourably hot day in London, as he prepared himself for the race, Guor was sure that he would not be able to complete the full Marathon, but his spirits were lifted no end when he first glimpsed the South Sudanese flags, first held aloft by some American’s near the start line at the Mall, and then by the South Sudanese community opposite the Palace of Westminster. At that point, he swore the he would not let us down and that he would finish the race, even if he had to drag himself across the finish line on his hands and knees. In the greatest and most challenging setting that athletics has to offer, Guor Marial gave a sound accounting of himself. He came 47th, finishing the 26 mile marathon in 2 hours and 19 minutes – only 8 minutes behind Kiprotich. A full twenty athletes failed to finish the race, under that day’s oppressive heat, and Guor had finished nearly 40 minutes ahead of the last contender to cross the finish line.

I could not but be reminded of a verse from the powerful poem “IF” by Rudyard Kipling.

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

As I said to Guor at the time, had he access to the same resources, I am sure that he would have given the Kenyan’s and the Ugandan a run for their money.

Those of us who live in the Diaspora, especially in a cosmopolitan city like London, are daily confronted by the sheer scale of the international community and, by very implication the diminutive nature of our own community. We are so few that we here in London are perceived and perceive ourselves as South Sudanese first and foremost. In a world of 7 billion, South Sudanese number only 12 million – that is less than one fifth of a per cent. Those who live in the homeland, wrapped up in the insular and day to day travails of life in South Sudan all too often forget this. Appreciation of this fact would go a long way to putting in context the challenges (often self-imposed) that South Sudan faces. It is a big old world and we are but a small and relatively inconsequential player in that world.

If nothing more, through his moral stand, his successful struggle to compete and through his respectable performance in the Olympic theatre, Guor Marial gained much need recognition and respect for our nascent country. He brought our little community together, both in the homeland and in the Diaspora, in celebration of our homeland. Amongst those who cheered him on, there was a pride and an intense ownership of that glorious project which is our dear nation, South Sudan.

In his own words:

“I just want to tell them I love them so much and I’m here for them. The whole country will be with me here. I hope to bring awareness to the country and hope the young generation will see me and will be able to dream high for the years to come.”

Samuel Okomi, the Director of South Sudan Youth Participation Agency (SSYPA) this September criticised the Council of Ministers in an article for focusing on personalities and not on the youth entire. Citizen Okomi is right to remind our leaders of the challenges facing the youth in South Sudan and the obligations of the government towards those youth.

I disagree with his hostility to the recognition, by those in the highest positions in our country, of the achievements of South Sudanese of distinction, those who have made an impact on a global scale. We can’t expect that the courage, sacrifice, commitment and contribution of all will be recognised and glorified. Doubtless, there are an innumerable number of them living amongst us. But where there are those who through circumstance, ability and sheer determination stand out, and can serve as an inspiration for others, then it is right that they be recognised.