South Sudan on Sunday became the Olympic movement’s 206th member amid emotional scenes as the war-stricken African nation crossed the final hurdle to competing at next year’s Rio Olympics.
Sports leaders from South Sudan, Sudan and IOC executive members could not hold back tears as the International Olympic Committee accepted the country by acclaim at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
Tong Deran, South Sudan Olympic Committee secretary general, said he had been crying at the thought of 16-year-old runner, Margrat Rumat Hasan, who had often “trained without being able to eat breakfast” because of the 19-month-old civil war.
Hasan could be one of at least four runners — two men and two women — who will compete in Rio next August.
The IOC had to wait four years after South Sudan’s independence to admit the country because it struggled to get five sports federations to give recognition as required by the world sports body’s rules.
Now it is recognised by the athletics, basketball, football, handball, judo, table tennis and taekwondo federations.
The civil war has left thousands dead and made it impossible for athletes to train in the country.
“All the sports facilities are broken down,” said Wilson Deng Kuoirot, a top army officer who is South Sudan’s first national Olympic committee president.
“Most of the children now have joined the armed groups,” he added. “We are going to arm them withsports instead of with guns.”
Hasan, Guor Marial — who finished 47th in the London 2012 Olympics marathon competing under the IOC flag — and other South Sudanese athletes now train in Kenya.
– ‘A dream come true’ –
Marial will compete at the athletics world championships in Beijing this month before preparing for Rio.
“It is very simple, the goal is to win a medal if I am healthy and train well,” Marial said from his training base in Kenya, where he watched the IOC ceremony by internet.
“I have been working for this since 2005, this is a dream come true,” Marial added. “There will be nothing better than competing in Rio under the South Sudanese flag.”
“We can bring unity and the sport we have initiated across the country can unite all 64 tribes and all 10 states” in the divided nation, Marial said.
Four-hundred metre runner, Hasan, who competed at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China this year should also be in Rio, Deran said.
South Sudan, which does not have an international standard athletics track, will rely on international aid to build up its sports infrastructure.
“Let me wish you a very bright future,” IOC president Thomas Bach said at the ceremony. “We will stand by your side.”
“We have nothing, we are starting from scratch,” said Deran, who broke down again after the ceremony as he told how the committee hoped to “empower” young athletes like Hasan.
“We are going to take care of her like a daughter,” he said.
There is one basketball stadium in the capital Juba where 10 teams play in a championship despite the conflict, Deran added. The nascent Olympic committee hopes that basketball, volleyball and handball teams could also go to Rio next year, if they can get help.
South Sudan broke with Sudan in 2011 but IOC leaders praised Sudanese sports officials for helping the South obtain membership of the global body. – Agence France-Presse