Three athletes without any recognized country danced in celebration in the march of nations during the opening ceremony of this year's Olympic games. While other athletes stood proudly behind their flags, honored to represent their country, these competitors simply celebrated their ability to participate in the games on their own behalf.
During the next 10 days, four athletes will compete under the Olympic banner because their home countries are not officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Though they are not competing under any flag, these athletes are proudly representing their countries. Three of them--Philipine van Aanholt, Limarvin Bonevacia, and Reginald DE Windt-- come from the dissolved country of the Netherlands Antilles. The fourth is Guor Marial, an Olympic marathon runner and refugee from South Sudan.
Marial fled the Sudan as a child, arriving first in Egypt. In 2001, he came to the United States with a green card and refugee status, but he does not have citizenship. Marial does not qualify to participate under the U.S., Sudan, or South Sudan flags, due to Olympic rules. But he has been cleared by the IOC to compete in the games under the Olympic flag.
"The voice of South Sudan has been heard," Marial told The Associated Press from his home in Flagtaff, Ariz. "The South Sudan has finally got a spot in the world community. Even though I will not carry their flag in this Olympic Games, the country itself is there."
Marial does not want to represent Sudan because he lost 28 family members to violence or disease during the civil unrest that eventually led to the south splitting from Sudan last year. Marial escaped the violence when he was eight, fleeing on foot with another child from a forced labor camp. The two children ran for days.
Marial hated running then. He only ran to save his life. But when he found refuge and safety, he learned running was something he actually enjoyed, even loved.
Marial will be the first athlete of his kind, since he will compete with no attachments to any country. If he wins the gold in the marathon, the Olympic hymn, rather than a national anthem, will play as he stands on the podium.
Bonevacia, van Aanholt, and De Windt will compete for the last time as a team independent from the Netherlands. The Netherlands Antilles dissolved in October 2010, leaving its athletes without a country to represent in the games. Olympic officials are allowing a temporary structure of the country so that the athletes will be recognized by the IOC. During the next games, athletes from the Caribbean island will represent the Netherlands.
In the past, similar measures have been taken to allow athletes to compete. In 1992, athletes from the former Yugoslavia were allowed to compete, and in 2000, athletes from the country now recognized as Timor-Leste competed under the Olympic flag.
Athletes from the Netherland Antilles, including van Aanholt's father, have competed in the past. The senior van Aanholt sailed a laser, a single-person boat, in the Australian Olympic games in 2000. Van Aanholt also will sail the laser, like her father.
The other two athletes will compete on land--Bonevacia will run the 400 meter and De Windt will participate in Judo.
Marial, who missed the opening ceremony due to delays in getting a passport and permission to travel, was preparing to head out on a training run when he heard he would be going to the games.
"This is so exciting," he said. "It's hard to describe. I'm speechless. The body temperature is up. I have to train like an Olympian now."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.