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Olympic athlete, ex-refugee Guor Marial: 'Give peace a chance' for a better future

Guor Mading Maker is seen running in the men's marathon at the London Olympics in this screenshot from the film "Runner." (C)Bill Gallagher

TOKYO -- Guor Mading Maker, who competed in the men's marathon at the 2012 London Olympics and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics after fleeing from Sudan due to a civil war, recently talked with the Mainichi Shimbun about the games and his experience as a refugee as well as his take on issues such as peace and discrimination.

    Maker, known as Guor Marial, was born in southern Sudan in northern Africa in 1984. At age 8, he left his village to escape the civil war. He was then captured by an armed group, but ran away to a refugee camp. He began attending a high school in New Hampshire, the United States, in 2001 as a refugee. In his first marathon, he won the right to participate in the London Olympics, and completed the marathon as an independent athlete. At the Rio de Janeiro Games, he attended the opening ceremony as South Sudan's flag bearer and competed in the marathon.

    A film directed by Bill Gallagher on the life of Maker, who currently lives in the U.S., was released across Japan on June 5. The following is an excerpt from an online interview with the 37-year-old athlete.

    ***

    Question: What was the most memorable thing about each of the two Olympic Games that you competed in?

    Answer: Seeing all the South Sudanese lining up on the side of the street cheering me on; they were holding the South Sudan flag, and at that time I think I was at 10 kilometers or so. I was completely tired and I was kind of debating whether I wanted to stop or not, but the "game," when I saw the South Sudanese, it just gave me a lot of energy and that was the most memorable thing ever, so it pushed me to force myself to cross the finishing line and that was that for 2012.

    For 2016, I think carrying the flag of South Sudan, walking into the stadium and waving to all the spectators and to ... pretty much I was waving to South Sudanese and everyone was jumping all over the place across the country, even all the way to the village, people were watching the Olympics. I think that was a most memorable one; to be able to do that and then again putting on the South Sudanese uniform and competing in the marathon and crossing the finishing line. I think those were the outstanding memories that will live on for the rest of my life.

    Q: When you were running and you saw South Sudanese people celebrating your performances, what were the things that crossed your mind?

    A: The thing that crossed my mind is that I that I delivered the message. The message has been received by the South Sudanese. People are happy. It was a joy. And I see that to be a big impact, and that was what was just going on in my mind. So, you know, it was a tough road. It was a battling road. Struggling after struggling, but we succeeded. We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish for the country and for the youth in the country. And I was just saying I hope that even though I did not win the gold today, I did not get a medal today, but with this I'm pretty sure within 10 years from now we're going to have some South Sudanese athletes with medal(s) in the Olympics. I was just full of joy, crossing the finishing line and seeing everyone celebrating. I was saying thank God for giving me this opportunity; and it happened through a lot of help from many, many, many, many people. I cannot even name them. Many people helped me. So it was a lot of help from collectively all over the world to push South Sudan into the Olympics.

    A: Have you ever felt it hard or painful to practice running? If so, when did you feel that way, and how did you overcome that struggle?

    Q: I was just looking at it as: this is simple then compared to where I came from and what I've been through. So, this ... it's just the pain and pain will not do anything; it will not kill me. But what I went through is more painful than this one. So, this one here, if I can do just a few minutes of pain it's okay and it's part of life. But, what I've been through is not comparable to this and that is what kept my mind going and also to, for the people I represent. Because giving up is basically failing those who I represent. and that was an ideal situation that kept me going and that's what kept me putting on my shoes every morning and run, even no matter how tired I am. Because there were people who fought for me to live. Those who lost their life. My siblings, all of that; when you look at it, I say "This. this is nothing and if I can still go on then I can accomplish it."

    Q: What are the differences between the Olympic Games and other competitions?

    South Sudanese people are seen cheering for Guor Mading Maker in this screenshot from the film "Runner." (C)Bill Gallagher

    A: The things that make the Olympic Games different than any other competition is that in (the) Olympics, you're representing the country. You're there for your own country. You're not there for money, you're not there to be paid, you're not there to do anything. Even if you win a gold you don't get paid. It's you wearing that gold for your country. You pretty much have the entire country on your shoulders. So, you're not everything about the Olympics. And the other competition ... let's say Tokyo Marathon, all of the other stuff; those are you actually competing for yourself to make money or to make your name (known), or to represent the company that is sponsoring you. So those are big two differences.

    The Olympics (puts) way more on your shoulder(s) then the regular competition. That's the beauty about it; you're there, you're competing against the world and you're representing your people. So, it's at the back of your mind that if I can win a medal for my country that would be the most important thing.

    Q: When you participated in the 2012 London Olympics, you couldn't represent South Sudan. Under such circumstance, what enabled you to stay motivated?

    A: The struggle we went through as a country, as people of South Sudan, for 55 years plus; a lot of people have died, a lot of people have struggled to liberate their country to become the way the country is. So when I was facing all of those challenge(s) of going to the Olympics in 2012, despite that I did not have a country to run for, it was my hope to get into that Olympics so I can bring the name of South Sudanese. Yes, people were going to say, "Guor is running under the IOC flag." However, what do they refer Guor to? Guor is a South Sudanese refugee from South Sudan.

    I mentioned earlier, when South Sudanese heard me and heard my story on the news, they all rallied up. There were like a hundred of them that came to the "game." Imagine that right there, even though I did not carry the South Sudanese flag or wear the South Sudanese uniform, I still represented South Sudan. That is what pushed me the most to fight and to persuade the IOC to give me the chance. And the chance I was asking for, it wasn't my chance to go to the Olympics, it was a chance for the South Sudanese people to go to the Olympics and that's what motivated me the most.

    And also, the refugees all over the world, to give them hope there is opportunity, there is always a way out. Even though the day is dark for you today there is always a way out. There is opportunity; so keep working hard, don't give up and dream. And it can apply to any person. It doesn't have to be refugees or South Sudanese. Any person all over the world; give them hope that there is always an opportunity, don't give up, try to fight as much as you can and persevere and do everything you can do to succeed.

    Q: In the movie "Runner," after you finished running in the London Olympics, you said, "I knew that if I crossed that finishing line, it's not going to be me who crossed that finishing line. The people of South Sudan, the refugees, who I represented, all were the ones who I did that for them." What did you want to convey as a representative of the refugees?

    A: There are a couple of things, and that question is pretty much a reflection to both ways; to those who are (in) modern worlds such as Japan, such as the United States, the UK, to countries that are advanced, in China and all of them. And the other one is going to reflect the South Sudanese and refugees. So, let's start with the South Sudanese.

    It's to show the South Sudanese, "Look, we South Sudanese, we have been in a war for so long. Here is the product. here is a benefit if you give yourself a chance. If you give of yourself a chance to bring peace in the country this is what is going to happen: more Guor are going to come. Someone who's better than me will come if we give the chance, if we give peace the chance, if we give peace a chance then more Guor will come and win the gold in the future."

    So that was a message that I was sending to the South Sudanese and also to the youth across the South Sudan in the village that war is not what defines us; opportunity is what define(s) us. And the peace and the unity are what's going to make the country a better country and it's what's going to produce the best athletes, the best doctor, the best educated people in the country. Without peace, these kinds of things will not happen, so basically to inspire the people across South Sudan.

    Now when it comes to the rest of the world, the message was that, "Look, refugees are not troublemakers. Refugees are just human beings that need opportunity. If you can give the refugees opportunity, this is what is going to happen. They can become productive to the community that they live in, or the community that accepts them, adopt(s) them. And they also can be productive to their native country. So those were a couple of messages to the world, to (the) advanced world and to the South Sudan I came from.

    Now to the refugees, it was a hope, to give them hope: that I am one of you. I was a refugee, and here I am. I got an opportunity. So if you go into to a community where you can get an opportunity and you stay in peace, be productive to ... the community you stay in and also do great thing(s) so that the community can appreciate you and you can translate that back into your own land that you came from and those people back home there will benefit. So those were the three messages I wanted to get across.

    Q: The South Sudan Athletic Federation said it would ban you from representing your country at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics if you didn't hand over the scholarship awarded to you by the International Olympic Committee. Despite having many experiences of being affected by the whims of politics, systems and governments, what motivates you to push on forward and not be discouraged?

    Guor Mading Maker is seen wearing a South Sudanese uniform in this screenshot from the film "Runner." (C)Bill Gallagher

    A: Because I believe that those who are trying to deter me are not the people of South Sudan, those just wanted things for their pocket. The people of South Sudan are who I saw that these are the people who I want to represent; not those people who wanted to deter me because they don't want good things for the country. They are only focusing on themselves and instead of saying, "Okay what this person is doing is not for him but is for the country," and it's to inspire the youth and also to advocate for the peace; to bring the peace among the youth because all the youth across South Sudan, the only thing (the) majority know is war, war. If you give a young boy in a village an AR-15 they going to know how to work it. But that's not a good way we want. We want a child in a village to know how to do mathematic, know how to do chemistry, to know how to do physics. And those cannot come unless peace comes to the country. That is the only way we (are) going to cultivate those kinds ... and be able to produce those kinds of mentality and brain. So, when these guys come to try to disrupt the plan, I ignore them completely even if they said they suspended me I'm still going to go by myself because it's not the people of South Sudan as one saying this one. It's just these politicians who were trying to come in my way and disrupt the success. So that's what motivated me.

    Q: The Olympic Charter states: "The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity." Do you think the Olympic Games creates a peaceful and diverse society?

    A: It does. It does because when you are in the Olympics, the symbol for the Olympics is basically we have five rings for the five continents and those continents, they have multiple countries with different culture(s), different diversity. So, when you bring all of those five continents together you're pretty much uniting people. As for example there are big three countries: China, (the) United States and Russia. When they go to the Olympics they're eating, the athletes are eating side by side. They're talking, they're doing this one. When they go back to their own country, there's no peace, right? But in the Olympic Village there is peace. That is what the Olympics is about. So that statement correctly defines what the Olympic purpose is: basically to unite people, to make people come together and celebrate the game(s) without any hatred or any sexual orientation or anything like that. Basically, making people come together. And I do hope that the Olympic officials themselves too believe in that kind of thing.

    And for me that's what I believed. Because when I went to the 2012 Olympics, I was just like, "Wow look at that! That athlete is from Japan, that athlete is from China, that athlete is from (the) U.K., that athlete is from Nigeria and all of that, and we are pretty much together." We eat in the same cafeteria and we sleep in the same dorm. So that is unity right there, and I hope the world could have taken that kind of image and translate it back into the outside and say, "You know what? If we can unite at this world stage celebrating together, then why cannot we unite when we are at our home country?" And if you can do that, I think the world can be a beautiful place to live in.

    Q: What do you think is the value of sports, which can encourage people?

    A: I think the value of sports is to bring people together and bring unity. A sport is powerful, a sport is like music. If you go to a concert people, you're going to go with multiple people. Sports brings people together, music brings people together. Even music sometimes turns some people away, but it depends on what kind of music you like, but sports tend to be more powerful because it doesn't discriminate (against) any background. It unites people and bring(s) people together -- that is the beauty of sports.

    A: What are your thoughts on the Tokyo Games?

    Q: It's very tough, and I will leave it to the Japanese citizen(s) to decide because they're the one(s) who has more voice and they're the one(s) at concern, because we are in a tough time. There is a virus, there is all of that and whatever decision the Japanese citizen(s) will make, to me in my opinion, I will respect that. Yes, (the) Olympics is a celebration. But when there are lives being lost and the economy being destroyed, because of this, I think that celebration can be paused a little bit. It's like you cannot celebrate a birthday when someone is shooting you. You'll be running, trying to save your life because you want to be safe until that thing cools off, and then now you can come and celebrate. That is the idea.

    So, to me, if I was the rest of the world, I will leave that to Japanese people. Even the IOC; I think that IOC should respect the Japanese decision, citizens' decision. Not the Japanese government, but the Japanese citizens' decision. Those who are in the countryside, those who are being affected the most and also the Japanese scientists, the doctors and the health care community to decide, Okay we think it's okay to celebrate now, or we think Olympics is not a good idea to celebrate now because of our health concern(s). So those are the things, that's how I look at it. But again, it's up to the Japanese citizens to decide what basically is good for them. They're the host, but I think they have the voice to decide. And if they work together with the Olympic committee, I think they will come up with the best decision on both sides that can be suitable to both (the) IOC and also the Japanese community.

    Q: What do you think about your possible participation in the games?

    A: I will not participate in the games this year unfortunately because I just had back surgery, so pretty much I am out of this year's Olympics unfortunately. It was my hope to make it to Japan and see the Japanese people and it's a country I've always wanted to go, but because of these circumstances, I will not participate this year. I'm going to be watching from my computer here. But I will pretty much, if it's going to be held, then I wish nothing but the best to all the athletes, to the Japanese community for making the decision at such a tough time. It's something that would be amazing to make it happen. If it doesn't happen, I also give respect to the Japanese people for making such a decision, and also for seeing themselves -- what is good for them.

    Q: What kind of role do you want to play for South Sudan in the future?

    A: Making sure the athletic programs go smoothly and also peace in the country. If peace can come in the country and give opportunity to the youth, I think South Sudan can produce a lot of great things, can do a lot of great things. Right now, we have the tallest people in the world, and that is in basketball. But those kinds of things cannot come without peace. I do think that we're going to have good marathoners, we're going to have good sprinters, we're going to have good discus, we're going to have all this track and field a good one, and also too we're going to have good students. These can be good doctors, can be good pilots, can be all of that. All of that can't happen unless there is peace. And when the country is being damaged by war it's not easy.

    A poster for the documentary film "Runner" on the life of Guor Mading Maker is seen in this image provided by United People.

    Q: As a person who experienced living in a warzone during childhood, do you have any advice to the people of Japan and elsewhere on how we can create a peaceful society?

    A: Creating a peaceful society, like I mentioned earlier, is creating a peaceful society that respects each other. And try to understand, first understand each other, who you are, and I appreciate that kind of cultural diversity and it can be Japanese themselves. To me I do think this kind of thing, saying, "You're black, you're this, you're that," I think this should be put aside, this is what continues to create division. Labeling people by their nationality, by their skin color, all of this. I think that's what brings division.

    A: What do you think about the movie, and why did you agree to make your experience into a movie?

    Q: When they see the film, what do they take away? Do they say, "Aww there's Guor with his poor family, and all of the stuff, he ran away from a warzone country," or do they say, "Wow, I learned a lot today and I think this needs to stop. What is separating the family and migration, it needs to stop. And what can I do to play a part in my community. So, whatever I can do in my own home, outside of my door, and in my community, my local grocery store. What I can do to make sure my community is good, and if my community is good, the neighbor countries are going to be peaceful, the rest of the world is going to be peaceful."

    So, if someone can see like that way, that is what I would want people to take away. Forget about my life, forget about my family's struggle, all of that stuff. Just put it in a big picture. What can we do as a nation, as a world? To make sure such a thing doesn't happen. To make sure a child will not get into that place. Because again, any nation can be that way, at any given time. Any nation can fall and any nation can be a refugee. It happens and history shows from the ancient, to the Egyptian, to (the) Roman(s), to any nation. So, something that we can see and take away and say what did we learn from this documentary that we can do to pretty much to make sure such a thing doesn't happen.

    The way I agreed, is to send a message out to show to the world that war damages society, war damages family. And if I can send this message using my family privacy to show to the world, don't get me wrong there's a couple of books being written about refugees, there's a couple of documentary and movies on the topic, but yet I decided to do that because I wanted to show as a refugee, my life how it progressed to this level. To show to the refugees there's opportunity, to show to the world what can the world do, what action the world can take. To make sure families don't get separated. To make sure nations don't get destroyed like the one in South Sudan, in Syria, in elsewhere.

    And to do that, I think that is the kind of thing I wanted people to take away and that is the message I wanted to send, and that's why I agreed to do the documentary about my family's life.

    Q: Do you have anything else you would like to say, or lessons you want to pass on to the young generations in Japan and across the globe?

    A: I think the lesson I learned throughout my life is just try to make the right decision. Try to choose the people you want to hang out with. They're the people who can elevate you to the place you want to be -- this is the lesson I learned. And the example I gave you earlier that we were a couple of refugees in high school, but some of us did not make it some of us made it, but we were welcomed together equally, but because of the decision we made that is the thing. The outcome of your life is based on you.

    Another thing too, is that if you were born by a poor family, it's not your fault. Try to seek for opportunity, ask questions if you need to ask questions. Seek for opportunity and try to play a good citizen instead of playing a bad citizen. That's the kind of lesson I learned is make the right decision, seek for help, work hard, never give up, keep pushing. Because the outcome is going to be greater. And good things do not come easy. A good thing come(s) hard, takes time, takes a lot of energy and lot of sacrifice for a good thing to happen. And you have to be patient too, because it doesn't happen overnight.

    ***

    "Runner" is a documentary film about Guor Mading Maker from South Sudan. He fled from his home country during the civil war, and immigrated to the U.S. After entering high school, Maker became known for his talent as a long-distance runner with outstanding leg strength. He participated in the men's marathon at the London Olympics as a refugee, and as a member of South Sudan's team at the Rio de Janeiro Games.

    The movie depicts how Maker, who brought hope and pride to his home country that has suffered from the civil war -- which is said to have killed about 2 million people in the 40 years since 1955 -- overcame various struggles since childhood, and competed in the Olympic Games.

    Information on the film can be seen on the official website at https://unitedpeople.jp/runner/ (in Japanese).

    (By Yuki Motohashi, Olympics/Paralympics Promotion Office and Rei Oikawa, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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