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By Mick Krever
(CNN) – More than 10,000 athletes are competing in the London Olympics, each representing a country. All, that is, except four.
One of the so-called “Independent Olympic Athletes” is Marathon runner Guor Marial. His country of South Sudan is so new – just over one year – that it doesn’t yet have an Olympic team.
It is safe to say that no one has had to overcome more hardship en route to the Olympic Games.
At age seven, he left his home and was forced to work for Sudanese soldiers, earning just a dollar per month.
“The life wasn’t fun,” he says matter-of-factly. “I had to do it because I had no choice. I’d rather get one dollar per month instead of getting nothing or going to eat in the garbage.”
Fate rubbed salt in his wound when he was abducted from his de-facto slavery by a group of herders who forced him to tend to their goats and sheep.
He was a “lost boy” – part of a generation of Sudanese boys captured and enslaved during a two-decade-long civil war.
Marial knew his only option for survival was escape.
“I ran into one of the guys; he was a little older than me, around 10, 11, or 12,” Marial recalled. “I talked to him and I said, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ These people, I’m pretty sure, they are not going to let us go back. … They might go and kill us and do whatever they want with us.”
Two days later, Marial and his accomplice made their escape.
“When the sun came up, we started running,” Marial said. “And we walk, we ran, we walk, we ran.”
Competition, no surprise, was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I was appreciating the running because the running allowed me to escape,” he said. “When I left Sudan, I said I will never, never run again, because I thought running is only for me to save my life.”
It was not until Marial was granted asylum to the United States, in 2001, that he could imagine running for sport.
“When I came to United States I felt confident and comfortable there,” he said. “I am safe now. I am not worried about anything besides…my parents.” He has not seen them in 20 years.
Marial’s whole family still lives in South Sudan.
South Sudan’s joyous – and given its history, relatively peaceful – independence last year was quickly tempered. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. And tensions with Sudan over oil and territory have left it teetering on the brink of war.
“Everything’s still pretty much the same as I left it; that’s what I’ve been hearing,” Marial said. “There’s still no electricity, no running water, none whatsoever. People are still drinking in a river.”
Still, he said, his family will watch him compete in London – no easy task in South Sudan. They will have to walk over 30 miles to get to a village with electricity.
Since independence, his family got “a little bit of road,” Marial said. But because it’s the rainy season, the route to the nearest TV is inaccessible by car.
“I think they will be more excited than me,” Marial said of his parents. “And very proud of me. And appreciated what I have done, and what I am going to do. And not just them, but I hope the whole South Sudan will appreciate what is going on, and be able to have a chance to see me running in the Olympics, and see their own blood is representing them.”
“This is the light I’ve been seeing when I’m walking in the tunnel, in the dark tunnel,” Marial said. “This is what I’ve been waiting for.”