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NH senator lobbies for refugee to run in Olympics

By Bridget Murphy
Associated Press / July 20, 2012
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BOSTON—When he was 8 years old, Guor Marial ran under cover of night to escape child slavery in a labor camp in Sudan.

Now 28, the refugee is hoping to run in the 2012 Olympic marathon to inspire those in his native land who still are struggling a year after seceding to form a new nation.

While London Games start soon, the resident of Flagstaff, Ariz., still is awaiting word from the International Olympic Committee about whether he can compete as an independent athlete.

"I'm just staying positive and training pretty hard," he said Friday. "I have faith that everything will work out one way or another."

Marial qualified for the Olympics last year, but can't compete for the United States because he's a permanent resident and not yet a citizen. On Friday, a U.S. senator from New Hampshire, where Marial went to high school, lent support to his Olympic bid.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen sent a letter to the International Olympic Committee appealing for Marial to compete under the Olympic flag.

Marial attended high school in Concord, N.H., after fleeing war-torn Sudan for the United States. He graduated in 2005, earning an athletic scholarship to Iowa State University and becoming an All-American in cross country his junior year.

He qualified for the Olympic marathon while finishing his first-ever 26.2-mile event, the 2011 Twin Cities marathon, with a time of 2 hours, 14 minutes and 32 seconds.

The runner said he declined Sudan's invitation to compete under its flag, saying he didn't consider himself a citizen. The athlete's birth village is in what's now South Sudan. After breaking away from Sudan in 2011, the new nation doesn't have an Olympic team yet.

The athlete also said he doesn't want to compete for Sudan because it's a place where he lost 28 family members to either murderous security forces or disease that spread during civil unrest.

"When you hear about his amazing personal story, what he has overcome, you just feel like the Olympic committee ought to look at his situation and figure out a way to accommodate him," Shaheen said.

The Democratic senator's letter follows a similar appeal to the IOC from Refugees International, a Washington-based organization that advocates for displaced people.

In 1992, athletes from the former Yugoslavia competed under the Olympic flag. In 2000, athletes from East Timor competed under the Olympic flag at the Sydney Games.

The IOC said in May that Kuwaiti athletes could compete as independents in the London Games after suspending the country's Olympic committee in 2010 because of government interference. They've since lifted the Kuwaiti suspension.

The IOC did not immediately return messages left Friday by The Associated Press.

Marial said the IOC asked him Thursday to send documentation that included information on his qualifying race time, a copy of his U.S. permanent resident card, and details about any past international competition. But he's never competed under any country's flag, and only started running for sport in high school in 2002.

"I used to hate running," he said. "I was running back home to save my life."

Gunmen kidnapped Marial when he was 8 and forced him into labor for about a week before he escaped with another child. The two ran to freedom by sneaking away before dawn, hiding in a cave, and later following the path of the sun away from the camp. He lived in Egypt before making his way to the U.S.

At 16, Marial joined the Concord High School track team after encouragement from a gym teacher who saw he never got winded during any sports activities in class.

"I think there's something that can make you tired," he said the teacher told him.

Marial said competing in the Aug. 12 marathon would mean a lot to people in South Sudan.

His parents live there in an area without electricity or running water, but Marial said he'll ask his father to come to the nearest city to watch him on TV if he gets to compete.

"Most important is the people of South Sudan. They struggle so much, so if I can accomplish something, I can help," Marial said. "That's why every morning, I get up, I put on my shoes and I train."

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