In search for unity – South Sudan looks to sport
South Sudan’s bid for recognition by the Olympic movement will be considered on 28 July during the IOC executive board meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. If approved, the issue will then be presented to IOC members during the IOC Session, taking place four days later. As the 193rd and most recent country to be recognized by the United Nations, South Sudan would become the 206th country to gain Olympic status, if formally approved in the coming weeks.
The nation’s search for sporting recognition has been clear since its independence in 2011, as it struggled to fill all the necessary criteria to participate in the London 2012 Olympic Games. Athletes from South Sudan have participated under the colours of the Olympic flag, as did marathon runner Guor Marial in the 2012 Olympic Games and 400m runner Margret Rumat Hassan in the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympic Games. These developments have led to the founding of seven international sporting federations – athletics, basketball, handball, judo, football, table tennis and taekwondo – and most recently, to the South Sudan Olympic Committee which saw the appointment of Lieutenant General Wilson Deng Kuoirot as President last month.
It has to be said that these developments are taking place in the midst of a painful and violent context. South Sudan’s independence from Sudan in July 2011, put an end to what was considered Africa’s longest-running civil war and offered the promise of a bright future for a new nation rich in oil. Unfortunately, cessation of violence did not stop there. In December 2013 fighting broke out between forces loyal to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and rebels allied with former deputy President Riek Machar, leaving tens of thousands of people dead, 1.6 million internally displaced and more than 800,000 to flee their home to neighbouring countries. Both the government and rebel forces have carried out brutal attacks and violence against civilians.
The country needs unity, stability and cessation of violence. Earlier this week, Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General urged leaders of the country to end hostilities and to move beyond their “partial interests” and show courage and leadership. “Today, I repeat my call to President Kiir and former Vice-President Dr. Riek Machar to give up war – for the sake of the people and future of South Sudan. I urge them to compromise, forge a political deal and make true on their promises to protect their people”.
I believe that the recognition of the South Sudan Olympic Committee by the IOC could greatly help boost national pride in a fractured country plagued by civil war and a humanitarian crisis. Recognition would mean that South Sudan could send a team to next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Guor Marial could return to the Olympics as part of the first South Sudanese team, swapping the Olympic flag for the new, multi-coloured one of his homeland. As he points out, “Nothing is more special for me than to be able to go and run under a South Sudan flag”.
Indeed, participation at the Olympics and sports in general could help bridge ethnic divides. Last weekend, the South Sudanese capital of Juba celebrated the four-year anniversary of independence from Sudan with hundreds competing in a half marathon. The race brought together many from different tribes. Sport can be a great tool to unite the nation; however, it should not be the only agenda to IOC recognition. An agenda to bring together the leader of the government together with the leader of the rebel group should be encouraged in order to answer the citizens’ call to end hostilities as summarized by the UN Secretary-General. It is important to recognize the nation within the sport family so that we can foster, through sport, a much-needed dialogue. It is through this dialogue that we would have a direct impact on the local community and bring about change.