Sudan Refugee's Olympic Dreams in Jeopardy

By Michael Boyce
Olympic hopeful Guor Marial (L) with Brad Poore, a friend and fellow marathoner.

This week, thousands of athletes and staff are arriving in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics, which kick off on July 27. But there is one deserving athlete whose invitation hasn't yet arrived. His name is Guor Marial, and last month he qualified for the Olympic marathon with the blistering time of 2 hours, 12 minutes, and 55 seconds.

Marial is also a refugee from Unity State, in what is now South Sudan - and therein lies the problem. Because South Sudan has no National Olympic Committee, and because Marial has chosen not to run for Sudan (whose security forces killed 28 members of his family), he has been left without a national Olympic sponsor.

Like the International Olympic Committee itself, RI believes that every individual - displaced or not - is deserving of equal dignity and opportunity. That's why we called on the IOC today to let Marial join the 2012 Summer Olympics as an Independent Participant. This designation has been used for years to allow talented athletes from dissolved or new nations to compete at the highest level, and it is just what Marial deserves.

The full letter from RI President Michel Gabaudan to the president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, follows.

July 17, 2012

Count Jacques Rogge

President, International Olympic Committee

Dear Sir:

I write today regarding Guor Marial, a talented runner and a refugee from Sudan. In his first-ever marathon last year, Mr. Marial qualified for the Olympic Games with an ‘A standard’ performance, and wishes to participate in the 2012 Games in London.

Though Mr. Marial’s talent and accomplishments are sufficient to gain an Olympic berth, an unfortunate confluence of factors has so far kept him out of the competition. Born in Unity State, in what is now South Sudan, Mr. Marial may have claim to South Sudanese nationality but has not yet chosen to exercise that claim. Even if he received nationality in time for the 2012 Games, Mr. Marial could not compete for South Sudan because that country has not yet established a National Olympic Committee. He is also unable to race for the United States of America, his country of permanent residency, because the IOC requires that athletes be full citizens of the countries they represent.

The IOC has proposed that Mr. Marial run as part of the Sudanese Olympic team, which has offered to accept him as a member. However, based on his personal experiences and our expert knowledge, we believe such an arrangement would be inappropriate. Numerous members of Mr. Marial’s family have been killed by Sudanese security forces, and he himself has suffered serious physical abuse at the hands of Sudanese police. The threats against him are serious and were recognized as such when he gained refugee status in the United States. Therefore, asking Mr. Marial to submit once again to Sudanese authority as an Olympic athlete is not acceptable. Moreover, Mr. Marial was one of 500,000 individuals effectively stripped of Sudanese citizenship under a discriminatory amendment to Sudan's Nationality Law in August 2011. Allowing Sudan to carve out a special exception for Mr. Marial is inappropriate when hundreds of thousands like him have had their nationalities revoked en masse with no possibility of appeal.

As an alternative, we propose that Mr. Marial be allowed to compete in the 2012 Games as an Independent Participant. This status, which allows athletes to compete under the Olympic Flag, has been granted numerous times by the IOC. Indeed, a number of other athletes at this year’s games will be competing independently. At its 123rd session in July of last year, the IOC granted independent status to athletes from the Netherlands Antilles after its National Olympic Committee was dissolved, in order to “preserv[e] as much as possible the interests of the athletes.” Qualified athletes from South Sudan, including Mr. Marial, deserve equal treatment, and the IOC should act to grant him an Olympic berth without delay.

As the IOC considers this proposal, we encourage it to reflect on the Fourth Fundamental Principle of Olympism, which states that:

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

There are few ways of better upholding this principle than allowing Mr. Marial to compete as an equal independent participant in the London 2012 Games.

On behalf of Refugees International, I wish you and the entire IOC a successful Olympic Games. If you require any further information, please know that my colleagues and I are at your disposal.


Michel Gabaudan