Running for no country

30 Jul

On August 12th, Guor Marial will race in his first Olympics as an independent athlete. A refugee from the Sudanese civil war, Marial escaped in 1993 and has lived in the US for the last eleven years. A cross-country runner in college, Marial ran an Olympic qualifying time in his first marathon and caught the attention of the elite running community ( As a result, Marial will run in the Olympics in just a few days, but not for any Olympics-recognized nation.

Marial is not a US citizen, and South Sudan, which is just celebrating its first anniversary as a sovereign nation, doesn’t have a national Olympic committee. As for running for Sudan, Marial is clear, “Never. For me to even consider that is a betrayal. My family lost 28 members in the war with Sudan. Millions of my people were killed by Sudan forces. I can only forgive, but I cannot honor and glorify a country that killed my people” (

Marial’s story makes me wonder about the rules–not just in the Olympics–of identity: how we can declare ourselves and how well those options reflect who we see ourselves as. How those rules serve specific systems, but maybe not the fuller, complex realities of our experiences and identities: just as Marial can’t check off “USA” or “Sudan” in the current standard Olympics system, some children can’t check off “male” or “female” on current standard medical and educational forms, and some people can’t find a box to check off when they’re asked to identify their race.

This isn’t to argue that we should abolish boxes. In fact, I think boxes get a bad rap. The boxes just reflect human truths: that groups matter to us. Even as we strive to define ourselves as individuals, we seek to know ourselves through our commonalities with others (i.e. our group memberships). And we do the same with others: recognizing and connecting with them through what’s unique and what’s familiar (shared, like others) about them. Groups and labels, it would seem, are very human.

But that doesn’t mean they are humane. I know rules are made for (seemingly) good reasons, and I’m familiar with the slippery slope of lore. But as inspiring as Marial’s story is (he does, after all, get to run in the Olympics and dedicate his run, at least personally–if unofficially–to South Sudan), I would love for it to have another possibility: a newly created box–if only just for this one race this one summer–that he can check off so that he can run for the country he loves. And so that he can run on equal footing with all his competitors, not just physically but (dare I say) existentially. As a man with a home.

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