Sunday, November 19, 2017
Sports

Nowhere Man a true citizen of the Olympics

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LONDON

The Nowhere Man of the Olympics would have loved this. The spectacle. The sizzle. The fireworks.

Guor Marial has seen so much horror in his time, so much pain. He has been lost, and he has been hungry, and he has been afraid. He has been wrenched from his parents, from his home, from everything he knew.

Now, Marial is on his way to the Olympics.

What a shame he did not make it in time for Friday night's opening ceremony.

Across the globe, Marial has become known as the Man Without a Country, the miracle marathoner who defied all logic to qualify for these Games. When he arrives — next week, perhaps, if his paperwork can be sped along — he will compete under a flag depicting only the Olympic rings.

In some ways, you can think of Marial as the ultimate Olympian, an athlete not bound by colors or anthems or sponsors or celebrity. He is here to run, the way he once ran to stay alive. He is here to make you pay attention to his story, and because of it, he might make you pay attention to the troubles he escaped.

This is what opening ceremonies do. They glisten, and they dazzle, and they make you believe in dreams and ideals. For a little while, they can make you forget about the problems of the world.

Marial would have loved Friday, the lights and the sounds and the guy dressed like the queen who parachuted with the guy dressed like James Bond, and the 50-foot Voldemort and the Mary Poppins flying squadron and the Beatle and, of course, the athletes of the world. It was not as dazzling as, say, Beijing's ceremony, but it was a cool show to see.

Five thousand miles away, in Flagstaff, Ariz., Marial watched it all. You wonder. How old was he when he learned what a Beatle was? How many popular culture references did he get?

And how many memories came rushing back at him?

Marial was 9, living in the Sudan, when the men came. He was with friends, on his way to the river to swim. The men spoke Arabic, but they promised cows and goats for his family. They took him. They made him walk. They put him to work at a labor camp. He feared he would never see his home again.

So he ran from them. He and another boy, slightly older, ran away from the morning sun. They were children, running until they could not run, then walking, avoiding roads, eating nuts and fruit as they went. Once, they found a cave to sleep in.

"It was scary," he said Thursday night by phone. "But I wasn't afraid of the animals. I was not scared of snakes or lions. I would rather something kill me than a human come and take me and do something to me."

Eventually he found his way to a city and to the arms of relatives who had been looking for him. But it has been almost two decades since he has seen his mother and father. He talked to his father five years ago, to his mother three.

Soon, he hopes both can see him run. In his village in South Sudan, 35-40 miles from the nearest city, he says there are no phones, no electricity, no running water. He says a relative plans to get his parents to a place they can watch the marathon on Aug. 12, the Games' last day.

The world, too, might notice a struggling nation that could use a little help.

"I hope," he said. "I hope it can bring awareness, but awareness cannot initiate itself unless people see the truth. That region is damaged. You would be surprised how almost every single household lost people."

He remembers. He remembers losing 28 relatives to the Sudanese civil war in which almost 2 million people died. He remembers the soldier clubbing his jaw with a rifle. He remembers the other Lost Boys and wonders whatever happened to them. He remembers moving to Egypt, then on to the United States in 2001.

He remembers, too, swearing that he would never run again. "I ran for my life," he said. "I did not want to run again.

That changed. He ran cross-country for Iowa State. Last year, he ran his first marathon. He finished in 2:14.32, fast enough to qualify for the Olympics. He was not an American citizen, however, and South Sudan is a year-old nation that does not have an Olympic charter. Still, the Olympics decided they were better with him included.

Now he runs for awareness, for refugees, for South Sudan, for the United States, for the Olympics. In some ways he runs for the frightened child hiding in the cave. For the memories of a lot of other frightened children, too.

This time, however, Marial will run toward the light.

Some of it, perhaps, will shine on his country.

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