LONDON — South Sudan was not able to get Olympic recognition in time to field a team at the London Games. But the world’s newest nation has great hopes, and several impressive athletes competing under other flags. The nation’s sports minister says the world should watch out come 2016.
When the International Olympic Committee suggested that marathoner Guor Marial run for Sudan in this year's games, he refused.
The runner, a citizen of the new nation of South Sudan, said he could not in good conscience run for a country whose forces killed 28 of his family members and kidnapped him twice during the decades-long civil war between the two nations.
He left Sudan at the age of 15 and went to the United States as a refugee. But he cannot compete for the United States because he is not a citizen. Instead, he chose to compete under the Olympic flag at this year’s games.
South Sudan became the world’s newest nation a year ago.
Sports Minister Cirino Hiteng Ofuho says South Sudan was very quickly welcomed into the United Nations, the African Union, world soccer organization FIFA and the African football body.
But, he says, the International Olympic Committee said, "No." Their process takes two years. Ofuho says officials thought the IOC might waive some of its rules, but they did not.
“It is very disappointing, but we do understand that the IOC... has its own regulations, its own rules, even though we believed from the beginning that the IOC would be flexible like FIFA or the Confederation of African Football, that admitted South Sudan immediately without a lot of hindrance," said Ofuho.
But, he adds South Sudan will still make its mark. He praised Marial for his choice to participate as an independent.
"That is a very patriotic, very patriotic decision," he said. "They consulted me, and I told him, 'Guor Marial, you are a South Sudanese citizen, you are not an American yet, you are in the diaspora, you are a citizen of this country,' so therefore the IOC made a mistake to suggest to him to run under the flag of Sudan. That I think was very insensitive."
Athletes present US, British teams
Although the nation does not have a team, South Sudanese athletes are taking star roles on the American and British teams.
Chicago Bulls player Luol Deng leads Britain’s basketball team. And the U.S. team chose runner Lopez Lomong to be its flagbearer. Lomong is one of Sudan’s famous Lost Boys, a group of 20,000 children displaced during the last civil war.
Ofuho says there is more to come in 2016. He says his ministry is busy revamping athletic facilities in preparation.
"We have great potential in athletics," he said. "We have great potential in football, or soccer, as they say. We do have greater potential in basketball. We have great potential in women's games like handball, volleyball, and other games like taekwondo. Even we have games like wrestling and javelin, all of these games we are going to participate in."
No lack of support
Even without a team, South Sudanese athletes do not lack for support.
London resident Helen Mulla moved to Britain 30 years ago. This year, she is watching the games with extra pride, and rooting for Marial.
“Good luck to him on Sunday, and I hope he wins, so that we can be in the next Olympics just because of him," said Mulla. "I am so proud that we do have one person. It does not matter what part of South Sudan he is [from], but as long as he says he wants to run under the Olympic flag, not the Sudan flag, because he is from the Republic of South Sudan, and I am proud to say that I have one person representing the Republic of South Sudan running under the Olympic flag."
And, Ofuho says, the whole nation feels the same.