South Sudan gains Olympic status, cleared for Rio
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia
With an Olympic flag draped around his neck, the official from South Sudan couldn't contain his emotion.
Moments after his war-torn country was officially recognized by the IOC on Sunday, Tong Chor Malke Deran wiped tears from his eyes and later broke down when talking about the plight of his nation's athletes.
The decision means the world's newest nation will be able to have its competitors enter the stadium in Rio de Janeiro next year behind their own flag. More importantly, the country's near non-existent sporting infrastructure and athletes will receive funding assistance from the IOC.
South Sudan, which split from Sudan and became independent in 2011, has been hit by civil war for the past two years.
"Over the past few months, my country has undergone armed conflict, and we firmly believe this is going to be a milestone and a great vehicle for promoting peace-building," said Wilson Deng Kuoirot, president of the National Olympic Committee of South Sudan.
"It will also give great hope and inspiration to the youth of our country."
After their acceptance was confirmed, Kuoirot and Deran, secretary general of the South Sudan Olympic committee, accepted a certificate and an Olympic flag from IOC President Thomas Bach.
While Kuoirot spoke to thank the International Olympic Committee members, a tearful Deran wrapped himself in the flag.
Later in an interview, Deran, with the Olympic flag still draped around his body, broke down while talking about the plight of his country's athletes.
"They have no food, they train without having eaten," Deran said. "How can they exist like that? But now this will empower us and hopefully things will improve."
Even as the recognition was received, the news from their homeland was not good. Thousands of civilians in South Sudan's Upper Nile state face starvation after the government blocked aid groups from using the Nile River to deliver relief food, aid agencies said late last week.
The conflict has all but destroyed what little infrastructure existed in South Sudan. Asked to list what sporting facilities they have, Deran first said "we have nothing," then Kuoirot added: "Maybe one basketball arena."
The IOC's executive board recommended South Sudan's inclusion last week. It was the 206th country recognized by the IOC, and the first since Kosovo in 2014.
"Despite the political difficulties between Sudan and South Sudan, you worked together with your neighbors and have made this recognition possible," Bach said. "Sports builds bridges ... we will stand by your sides, we will assist in your development as much as we can."
South Sudan has seven national sporting federations -- athletics, basketball, soccer, handball, table tennis, taekwondo and judo. Two-time NBA all-star Luol Deng was born in South Sudan before moving to Britain and basketball is one of the country's most popular sports.
At the 2012 London Olympics, South Sudanese marathon runner Guor Marial competed as an independent athlete under the IOC flag. He finished 47th.
Marial watched the IOC meeting on live streaming from his training base in Kenya, where several other South Sudanese athletes are based.
"It was very emotional," Marial said in a Skype interview. "This moment is so special for me and my country, and it will be next year when I walk into the stadium in Rio behind our own flag."
At next year's Olympics, Marial could be joined by 400-meter runner Margret Rumat Hassan, who competed at the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympics and finished 16th.
"Some days I eat, some days I don't," Hassan said in a video played at the IOC meeting.
Four track and field athletes -- two males and two females -- could represent South Sudan at Rio.
South Sudan, with a population of 11.5 million, descended into conflict in December 2013 after a clash between forces loyal to former vice president Riek Machar, an ethnic Nuer, and President Salva Kiir, a Dinka. The fighting has spurred a humanitarian crisis, throwing the nation into turmoil four years after its inception.
South Sudan's conflict has forced more than 2 million people from their homes, including 730,000 to neighboring countries.