South Sudan's sadness as Olympic hopes fade fast
7/20/2012 2:30:02 AM -
JUBA (AFP) - Leaders of the world's youngest nation South Sudan have branded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as "conservative and insensitive" as hopes are fading fast of participating in the London Games.
Sports Minister Cireno Hiteng Ofuho said that athletes from the new nation, that separated from Sudan last year after decades of civil war, were told by the IOC they could only compete under the Sudanese flag in the Games starting next week.
"The feeling here is that the IOC is very conservative and insensitive to the people of South Sudan, and you can quote me on that," Ofuho told AFP.
"What is the reason for us becoming independent if they treat us like that?"
Ofuho said that appeals from South Sudan President Salva Kiir to include their Olympic hopefuls have so far fallen on deaf ears.
"Our President even wrote to the President of the IOC, Mr Jacques Rogge, pleading for their understanding and to let our athletes compete," he said.
But the response to the June 28 letter came back negative, Ofuho said.
"He wrote back and said: 'Sorry, because of the rigid processes in the IOC, a country needs two years to register'."
Ofuho admits that the wheels should have been set in motion for registering with the IOC in January 2011, when the South held a referendum in which 98 percent of the population voted for secession.
But in a vast nation ravaged by five decades of war that killed some two million people and scattered the rest in the bush or abroad, setting up basic institutions and passing key legislation such as a constitution took priority.
Ofuho lamented that their athletes could not take advantage of competing under the Olympic flag that another newly-independent state East Timor competed under during the 2000 Games.
Ofuho is most upset that star marathon runner Guor Marial, a 28-year-old South Sudanese who escaped death -- unlike most of his siblings -- and a brief encounter with slavery to seek refuge in the United States, looks set to miss the event.
He cannot compete for the US unless he has full citizenship, and is stuck in limbo to be recognised as South Sudanese.
"We have this Marial Guor, but we also have two athletes in Australia from the South Sudanese diaspora who qualified to be part of the Olympics for the Australian flag but they declined - they want to be South Sudanese," he said.
A Paralympic basketball team and wheelchair team are also ready to go, he said.
"There are people with landmine (injuries), those with gunshots, those with polio," said wheelchair team president Gatluak Kual Luak.
"It's not just going to the Olympics. It's also for them to show what talent they have and as players, to see what talent they have," said Luak.
But not at the expense of national pride.
"Since we are an independent nation, we will not go for the north's flag -- I can't see anyone agreeing to that," he added.
The new nation, which became the UN and African Union's newest member state this year, also joined international football federation FIFA.
They played a first international friendly against neighbouring Uganda on July 10, a day after celebrating their first birthday, and South Sudanese teams have also been competing in the regional CECAFA cup in Tanzania and next Rwanda.
"FIFA even has to bend the rules to let us qualify, but the rulers of the IOC are too conservative," said Ofuho.
Luak added: "Going to participate in the Olympics is very important. It's not just about the teams competing, but that South Sudan is represented.
"It's important to be seen as a nation, in London, on the world's stage."