Shortly after he had run around Buckingham Palace, headed down The Mall and pushed toward the finish line of the Olympic marathon, Guor Marial blew a kiss to a group of women who were madly cheering for him.
He was more than 11 minutes behind the leaders and finishing in 47th place, but for Mr. Marial and the women, he had triumphed.
As a stateless athlete who lost 28 family members in the Sudanese civil war and nearly died after being kidnapped twice, Mr. Marial had much to celebrate.
Technically, he was running under the banner of the International Olympic Committee at the Games, but everyone knew who he was really representing: South Sudan, a country created last year after splitting from Sudan.
“I made it through all the support of the people of South Sudan,” Mr. Marial said after finishing the race in two hours, 19 minutes and 32 seconds. “For sure they were proud of me and I am proud of them. They never disappoint me. Finishing, that was more important, and I finished. That was what I was hoping for.”
Amid all the hype of “living legends” like Usain Bolt, superstars such as Michael Phelps, and multimillionaires like LeBron James, Mr. Marial’s story stood out at the Olympics and demonstrated that the Games can have an impact beyond sports.
Mr. Marial grew up in Unity province in south Sudan, an area ravaged by civil war. His family twice tried to send him to safer parts of the country, and he was kidnapped both times and barely escaped. In 2001, he made it to a refugee camp in Egypt with an uncle and ended up in New Hampshire as a refugee. He began running in high school in Concord, N.H., and landed an athletic scholarship to Iowa State University. He now lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., where he trains for marathons and works at a home for the mentally disabled.
He had run the Olympic standard for the marathon twice, but appeared to have no opportunity to compete in London. He had no country. He wasn’t a citizen of the United States or South Sudan.
At first, the IOC and Sudan, ruled by a leader indicted for war crimes, wanted him to run for Sudan at the London Games. Mr. Marial refused. How could he run for a government that killed many members of his family? After some intense lobbying by U.S. and South Sudan officials, the IOC relented and entered him as an independent athlete competing under the Olympic banner.
“It is important to bring the name of South Sudan here and raise awareness of the issue going on in South Sudan,” Mr. Marial said on Sunday. “I just wanted to compete as an athlete because the love of the country is very important for me. I was not able to get them a medal ... but I felt like the world was watching.”
That included the roughly 20 women from the South Sudan’s Women’s Association who lined the course near the finish line waving South Sudan flags. “It was great,” Mr. Marial said of his race and the reception he has received since arriving in London a few days ago (he missed the opening ceremony). “To be able to show the South Sudan people something, that’s what mattered.”
He hasn’t seen his parents since 1993, although he talks to them often by phone. They walked about 50 kilometres to the nearest place that had a television to see him run.
His race on Sunday was “about the war,” he said. About “South Sudan and the refugees.” He wanted to talk some more, but a volunteer quietly led him away. “He needs to rest,” the volunteer said.