They were hard to miss: the "Independent Olympic Athletes," walking under the Olympic flag, dancing and jumping their way through the Parade of Nations. But what's their deal? In an Olympics with 204 teams—11 more than there are countries at the United Nations—how did four athletes find themselves effectively stateless?
War and politics, mostly. Marathoner Guor Marial was born in Panrieng, in what is now South Sudan, just as the Sudanese Civil War was getting underway. That conflict would take the lives of eight of his siblings, and at the age of eight, he found himself first taken to a labor camp, then escaping by hiding in a cave. He made his way to Kenya, then Egypt, and later to Arizona, and just last year ran his first ever marathon—he finished in an Olympic qualifying time of 2:14:32.
But Marial didn't have a country to represent. He hasn't obtained U.S. citizenship, and while Sudan offered him the chance to compete for them, he turned them down, citing the 28 family members he lost in the war. "It's not right for me to do that," he said. "It's not right for me to represent the country I refuged from."
Marial considers himself a citizen of South Sudan, the world's newest country after declaring its independence just over a year ago. But South Sudan, caught up in continued fighting as well as crippling famine, has been too concerned with nation-building to form an Olympic committee. And without an Olympic committee, he can't march under the South Sudanese flag. But just a week before the Games, the IOC approved Marial's petition to compete as an independent athlete. Without a passport, he couldn't make it to London in time for the opening ceremony—he was home in Flagstaff, watching with friends and ordering pizza—but he'll be there in time for the marathon, proudly and informally representing his country.
Some things are more important than Olympic glory. If I ran for Sudan, I would be betraying my people. I would be dishonoring the two million people who died for our freedom. I want to bring honor to my country. People who just want glory, the spotlight of the Olympics, they don't care about other people. I'm fighting for independent status because I do care. When I run, I want people to see me and say, "He is from South Sudan."
A more peaceful but no less political situation surrounds the other three independent athletes at these games. Reginald de Windt, a judoka, Lee-Marvin Bonevacia, a distance runner, and Philipine van Aanholt, a sailor, all hail from Curacao, which until 2010 was part of the Netherlands Antilles. That year, the Netherlands Antilles dissolved itself as an independent nation to become constituent countries of the Netherlands. The Netherland Antilles Olympic Committee hoped to keep functioning, but the IOC withdrew recognition last year. The three athletes would have been allowed to compete for the Dutch, but they don't identify as Dutch citizens, so they fought for—and won—the chance to compete as independents.
There have been independent athletes in the past—from East Timor in 2000, from Macedonia in 1992, both because the countries were too new to have set up an Olympic committee yet—so the games are well-prepared for their unique situations, and even for what to do if they win. Three athletes from the former Yugoslavia won medals in 1992, at a time the nation was under UN sanctions. They all competed wearing the Olympic colors, under the Olympic flag, and on the podium, it was the Olympic Anthem that was played.
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