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South Sudan Sends First Ever Official Olympic Team to Rio

South Sudanese 1500 meter runner Santino Kenyi in Juba before heading off to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 24, 2016, to compete in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

The world's youngest nation will send three athletes to compete in this year's summer games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Runner Santino Kenyi, 16, will compete in the 1500 meter race.

"I really feel proud and I'm really very happy for the first time as we are representing our nation," said Kenyi, who knows he is making history for his country.

Although this is the first time South Sudan has sent an official team, it's not the first time a South Sudanese has competed in an Olympic games.

In 2012, South Sudanese runner Guor Mading Maker took 47th in the marathon at the London summer games. But he ran under an Olympic flag because South Sudan wasn't yet recognized by the International Olympic Committee.

Maker will return to the Olympics this year. Also going to Rio is Margret Rumat Rumar Hassan, who will run the 200 meter race.

Five more South Sudanese athletes will compete as part of the first ever team of refugees.

Kenyi said they are collectively paving the way for future South Sudanese competitors.

"We are glad that next time also the new generation who are coming will also represent. It's like we are just like we are opening the door," he said.

In this photo taken Sunday, July 10, 2016, black smoke is seen rising above the capital Juba, in South Sudan.
In this photo taken Sunday, July 10, 2016, black smoke is seen rising above the capital Juba, in South Sudan.

Training under duress

Kenyi's journey to the Olympics hasn't been easy. South Sudan has experienced civil war since 2013, with tens of thousands killed.

While millions have fled the country, Kenyi has continued training in the capital Juba, even when fighting breaks out on the city's streets. "I was training with the war. People were fighting and I'm training."

Kenyi said he's heard so many gunshots they no longer bother him. "This thing has been happening here several times, and gun is now easy for me also because it is always happening."

Kenyi said he instead struggles with more prosaic challenges in the underdeveloped country where there are few roads or other infrastructure.

"We have no good field, and secondly also we have no facility for training ... We are supposed to train in high altitude and Juba here we have low altitude so it is a bit hard for us," he said.

Unifying element

Challenges aside, Kenyi believed sport is one way to unite his broken nation. The war has deeply divided South Sudan along ethnic lines.

"My message to my fellow South Sudanese, my brothers and sisters who are outside, is let us be united and let us be together, let's together we can build this nation and let us be united, we carry the flag of South Sudan for peace."

Despite athletes like Kenyi, peace remains elusive in South Sudan.

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