If there is anyone who embodies the spirit of the Olympic Games on its opening day today, it is Guor Marial, the South Sudanese refugee marathon runner who won his right to compete in London at the 11th hour. Marial lives in the US, but is a man without a passport or a country. He was born in what is now South Sudan, at a time when it was ruled by Sudan. He learned to run fleeing for his life from a Sudanese labour camp in a conflict that claimed the lives of 28 of his relatives. He survived by hiding in a cave, his jaw broken by soldiers. So when the International Olympic Committee offered him the chance to run for Sudan, he declined.
Last week, Marial was one of four competitors the IOC cleared to run under the Olympic flag as an independent, but he is in no doubt that he is running for his fledgling country. His story is even more remarkable because he only ran his first marathon last year, clocking up an Olympic qualifying time on his only attempt at the race.
Marial’s journey to the Games is extraordinary, but it is also not alone in its capacity to inspire a generation, as the London 2012 slogan goes. As the Olympics unfolds, among the Phelps and the Bolts, and the British hopes, the Ennises and Daleys, there are other athletes to cheer among the 10,500 hopefuls. All the competitors are, by definition, Olympian, but there are those who invite further Greek hyperbole, whose herculean stru| gles come with epic back stories.
It is worth watching the shooting just for Im Dong-Hyun, the South Korean world-record-holder, who is legally blind but wears nothing to correct his sight. Also making history in the women’s shooting is the Malaysian Nur Suryani Mohammad Taibi, who at 34 weeks (six weeks from her due date) is the most pregnant Olympian to take part in the Games and one of only four pregnant women ever to take part.
It is worth watching the marathon not just for the delighted Marial but also for Urige Buta, the Ethiopian-born Norwegian who trained running in sewage tunnels. It is worth watching the 100 metres hurdles for American Lolo Jones, who grew up hidden in the basement of a Salvation Army church in Des Moines with her father stealing the family’s meals. Watch the women’s boxing for Queen Underwood, the American fighter from Seattle who survived years of sexual abuse by her father and fought back from drug addiction to become a contender. And for Britain’s Nicola Adams, who, as a female boxer, has had to punch through more glass ceilings than most of Team Britain.
This is the first Games in which Adams and Underwood’s sport has been recognised by the IOC. But then this is a breakthrough Olympics for women. London 2012 is also the first Games where all countries have entered male and female teams, progress when you consider that 26 national teams had no women competitors at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Saudi Arabia will make history this month when its first two women competitors enter the Games. Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani will compete in judo, and Sarah Attar in the 800 metres. In Saudi Arabia, millions of women and young girls are effectively banned from taking part in sport. The women’s inclusion is not just symbolic, but a potential catalyst for change. Meanwhile Brunei has, for the first time, entered one woman in track and field, Maziah Mahusin, and Qatar has entered four female athletes including shooter Bahiya Al Hamad who will be the country’s flag-bearer at today’s opening ceremony.
Bhutan too makes history with its first competitor in a field other than archery, the country’s national sport. Archer Sherab Zam and shooter Kunzang Choden, both 28-year-old women, are the only two athletes to represent the remote Himalayan kingdom at the 2012 Games, competing on wildcard entries. Traditional archery is open only to men in Bhutan, but women are allowed to compete in modern archery, and the whole kingdom is willing them on. Meanwhile, Majinda Kelmendi has become the face of Kosovo, representing an entire country’s Olympic hopes. Kosovo is still not recognised by the IOC, but Kelmendi has an Albanian passport and will compete in judo under its flag.
London 2012 is also an Olympics full of Africa’s heart, hardships and the continent’s dazzling ability to overcome. Adrien Niyonshuti, the first mountain biker to represent Rwanda the land of a thousand hills in the Olympics, cycles to forget. When he breaks from cycling, he is crippled by headaches and violent memories of the Rwandan genocide in which all six of his brothers were killed.
As well as marathon runner Guor Marial, there are other South Sudanese born athletes with extraordinary stories. Lopez Lomong, one of the country’s Lost Boys whose ability to run days and nights to safety across the border into Kenya saved his life, is now running in the 5,000 metres for America. And there is our very own Luol Deng, captain of the British basketball team and of the Chicago Bulls whose family settled in Brixton after escaping the second South Sudanese war.
Team GB basketball coach Chris Finch, a Texan, recently summed up Luol’s story. “What have we got here?” he asks. “A big-hearted nation takes in a struggling Sudanese family and gives them a life. Luol repays that nation by undertaking a mission impossible against overwhelming odds He has never wavered and I hope you guys are proud of him because you bloody well should be.”
As we sit in traffic jams and sweat on the Underground, it’s easy to be cynical about the Olympics and its sponsorship-and-security circus. But it’s worth remembering there are people on the other side of the Park who are about to experience the moment their entire lives have been leading up to. Their guts and tenacity and commitment deserve our respect.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd