South Sudan hopes IOC recognition will unite newest nation

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — Torn by civil war and facing a humanitarian crisis, South Sudan is finding hope on the sporting front: The world's newest nation is in line for international recognition that would allow it to send a team to next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Gaining Olympic status, some say, could help bolster national pride and unite warring tribal factions in the fractured northeastern African country, where about 50,000 people have been killed in fighting in the past year-and-a half.

South Sudan, which split from Sudan and became independent in 2011, will be considered for recognition at the International Olympic Committee executive board meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the end of the month.

It could be formally approved by the full IOC a few days later and become the 206th country — the latest after Kosovo — to gain Olympic recognition.

"We are part of the international world community," said Tong Chor Malek, secretary general of South Sudan's newly formed national Olympic committee. "Now, there are 205 national committees (in the IOC). Why not South Sudan?"

South Sudan's search for sporting recognition was highlighted at the 2012 London Olympics when marathon runner Guor Marial competed as an independent athlete under the IOC flag because his country was not recognized by the Olympic body.

Marial, who finished 47th in the race, had refused to run for Sudan after fleeing previous violence there, escaping from a refugee camp as a boy to become an asylum seeker in the United States.

Now known as Guor Mading Maker, he could return to the Olympics in Rio as part of the first South Sudanese team, swapping the Olympic flag for the new, multicolored one of his homeland.

"Nothing is more special for me (than) to be able to go and run under a South Sudan flag," Maker told The Associated Press from Kenya, where he trains with seven other South Sudanese distance runners.

South Sudan, which marked four years of independence last Thursday, has been plagued by violence since December 2013 as government troops battle rebels led by a former deputy president.

The young country fell into war after just 18 months as a result of a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, who is now the leader of rebel forces controlling some parts of South Sudan.

Tens of thousands have died and most of the government's money is used to support the war effort against Machar's rebel forces. Aid agencies say South Sudan faces a serious humanitarian crisis, with many more people at risk of starvation amid the persistent violence.

After forming a national Olympic committee last month, South Sudan must meet other criteria to be accepted by the IOC; one of them is to have at least five sporting federations affiliated to international bodies.

South Sudan now has affiliations with seven international federations, according to Edward SeTimo, secretary general for sports at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport. They are soccer, basketball, athletics, table tennis, handball, judo and taekwondo.

South Sudan joined FIFA in 2012, basketball's FIBA in 2013, and is a provisional member of the International Association of Athletics Federations. It's expected to be fully approved by the IAAF in late August.

South Sudan's bid for Olympic recognition will be considered by the IOC executive board on July 28, the IOC said. If approved, the motion will likely be ratified by the full IOC membership on Aug. 2.

If South Sudan is recognized, it would likely send a small team composed only of distance runners to Rio, officials said. They would probably come from Maker's Kenya-based group.

Even with IOC backing, South Sudan faces huge challenges in organizing and funding sports at home because of the war, which has devastated the economy.

But participation at the Olympics, and sports in general, could help bridge ethnic divides, South Sudan athletics federation president Malek Rueben Riek said.

"Sport can accommodate any person with each and every background of the country. It refutes the tribal alignments," he said.

That appeared to be the case last weekend in Juba, the South Sudanese capital in the grip of war, when hundreds competed in a half marathon to celebrate the four-year anniversary of independence from Sudan.

Smiling runners wearing bright green vests and paper sun visors took off from the starting line at the clap of two wooden planks, rather than a starting gun, so as not to scare anyone. The race brought together many from different tribes.

"They are all mixed," 18-year-old Joseph Ladu said. "It's to create unity and peace."