June 19, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Bill Gallagher
Culture Representation: Taking place in the various parts of the world (including the United States, South Sudan, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Canada, Australia), this biographical documentary of South Sudanese long-distance Olympian runner Guor Mading Maker features interviews with black, white and Asian people representing the poor to upper-middle-class.
Culture Clash: As a refugee of war-torn Sudan, Maker overcame numerous obstacles in his home country and elsewhere to get to the Olympics.
Culture Audience: “Runner” will appeal primarily to people who like real-life inspirational stories and sports documentaries.
There have been many “triumphing against all odds” sports documentaries, but few will make as deep of an emotional impact on viewers as much “Runner.” The movie is the riveting biographical story of South Sudanese long-distance runner Guor Mading Maker (formerly known as Guor Marial) and his Olympic dreams. Along the way, he experienced horrific childhood trauma while growing up in war-torn Sudan, including being separated from his parents for 20 years, having most of his siblings killed during the war, and being captured and tortured by enemy soldiers.
“Runner” (directed by Bill Gallagher) was filmed over several years and includes interviews with Maker and several people who know him, as well as people involved in some way with helping Maker’s Olympic dreams come true. It’s never easy for any athlete to get to the Olympics, but most do not have the unique and daunting obstacles faced by Maker.
As a child in growing up in Sundan’s Pariang County during Sudan’s civil war, Maker’s parents feared that he would be killed in the war. So, in 1993, they sent him away to what they thought would be a safer place: the city of Bentiu, where he walked by himself and had to find ways to survive on his own. He sold nuts and mangos to make a living, but then he was captured by enemy soldiers, who forced him to become a thief for them. (The documentary effectively uses animation to illustrate his childhood.) He managed to escape with another kidnapped boy.
For the next four years, Maker drifted alone throughout southern Sudan. He then found his aunt (Zainab Mohagir), uncle and their daughter/Maker’s cousin (Ajok Majak) in a displacement camp. Together, they were all selected as part of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and they moved to Concord, New Hampshire, in 2001. (Mohagir and Majak are briefly interviewed in the documentary.)
While in the United States, Maker enrolled in high school and learned English. Pete Samuels, one of Maker’s former classmates from high school, remembers being immediately impressed by Maker’s unassuming but friendly demeanor: “He had a warm presence,” says Samuels. It wasn’t long before the athletic instructors at the school noticed that Maker was a superb runner.
Maker’s former gym teacher Eric Brown describes how he first got to know Maker: “The language barrier was a challenge at the time … He was tireless and had so much energy. When I saw him finally run, that’s when I saw something really special.”
Brown continues, “He didn’t even know what track was. He didn’t know running was a sport.” Maker concurs and says that the first time he heard the word “track” for running, he didn’t understand and thought people were saying “truck.”
Three days after trying out for the school’s track team, Maker was on the team as they went on state-level competitions. Samuels says of Maker: “He was a star on a state level immediately.” Tim Metcalfe, another former teammate from high school, also mentions how rapidly Maker outshone much of the competition. But things weren’t all smooth sailing for Maker during his new life in the United States.
Rusty Cofrin (Maker’s track and field coach from high school) and his wife Shirrill Cofrin noticed that Maker was very malnourished, as a result of his eating habits from his traumatic childhood. The Cofrins say in the documentary that they helped him have a healthier diet and also helped Maker get new front teeth, which were missing because they had been smashed out by a soldier’s gun when Maker was a child.
Even though Maker had found a better life for himself in the United States, he was still very much haunted by what happened to him and his family in Sudan. In the documentary, Maker describes the bold 1994 escape that he made from his abductors, who kept him tied up in a room where he was frequently tortured because he refused to join them on their killing sprees.
Maker says, with tears filling his eyes as he relives that horror of the experience, that he made up his mind to escape as soon as he could. He remembers what his thoughts were at the time: “I’d rather die running than die in this room.”
While living life as a high-school track star in New Hampshire, Maker received another devastating blow when one of his brothers died in Sudan. With eight of his nine siblings now dead, Maker said, “It made me feel powerless. I didn’t know what to do.” He was so distraught with grief that he wanted to quit track and field. However, Cofrin says he sternly told Maker that he couldn’t quit because his running talent would be his ticket to college and a better life so he could help his family left behind in Sudan.
In the end, Maker didn’t quit, and he eventually placed fifth in the New England High School Outdoor Track and Field Championships and enrolled at Iowa State University, where he continued to thrive as as runner. Corey Ihmels (who was his track and field coach at the university) and marathon runner Brad Poore both marvel in the documentary at how the first marathon that Maker participated in was the one that qualified Maker for the 2012 Olympics.
Maker, who says that his war-torn home country was always on his mind when he was competing in the track races, was qualified for the Olympics, but he didn’t have a country to represent at the time. South Sudan became a new nation in 2011, as part of a truce in Sudan’s civil war that split northern and southern Sudan. In 2012, the newly formed South Sudan did not have a National Olympic Committee, which each country is required to have to send athletes to the Olympics. Maker also wasn’t a U.S. citizen at the time. (He became a U.S. citizen in 2013.)
The news media found out about the story of an athlete being in this unique situation of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics but not having a nation to represent. The Chicago Tribune’s Peter Hersh, one of the first journalists to break the story, is interviewed in the documentary. International Olympics Committee director of communications Mark Adams also weighs in when talking about the special circumstance that led Maker to participate in the 2012 Olympics in London: Since he was not representing any country, Maker was allowed to compete by representing the Olympic flag.
Although he wasn’t officially representing any country at the 2012 Olympics, Maker still had plenty of South Sudanese people rallying around him with national pride. One such admirer interviewed in the documentary is Marina Ajith of the London South Sudanese Women’s Association, who helped organize enthusiastic events for Maker when he came to London for the Olympics. She’s also seen marching in a joyful parade procession holding a Sudanese flag that she made herself.
The last third of “Runner” is the best part of the documentary. The movie shows Maker going to South Sudan in 2013, to see his parents (mother Atheing Kon and father Miading Miaker) and his only surviving sibling (brother Monyjok Miaker) for the first time in 20 years. The reunion scenes are very emotional and will bring tears to many viewers’ eyes.
Even after accomplishing his goal of going to the 2012 Olympics, there was still more work ahead for Maker, who became passionately involved in helping people in South Sudan train for the 2016 Olympics. Maker was also involved in a nasty dispute with the South Sudan Athletic Federation (the documentary pretty much blames the federation for being corrupt and greedy), which caused the federation to suspend Maker, putting another obstacle in front of his Olympic dreams.
Fortunately, Maker was re-instated (which had to a lot to the immense public backlash against the the federation) and the documentary gives a candid look at Maker’s intense preparations to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, after South Sudan’s National Olympic Committee was approved by the International Olympic Committee. When Maker watches the approval proceedings on a live satellite TV feed with other Sudanese athletes, it’s another very emotional moment in the documentary.
Maker experiences many other setbacks, but his perseverance is truly inspiring not just because it’s about him achieving personal goals but also because he is a shining example of someone who selflessly gives back to the communities that represent his roots. His ability to overcome a traumatic past to uplift others who aren’t as lucky is something that is truly magnificent to behold. And now that South Sudan is embroiled in another civil war, the inspiration that comes from Maker is a legacy that goes beyond marathons and Olympic games.
Jacob Lagu, a South Sudanese activist, comments in the film: “If there’s one that unites a fractious country, it’s sporting heroes.” Lagu says of Maker: “He has taken all of that hurt and redirected it to positive energies.” You don’t have to be a sports fan or even a documentary fan to be moved by watching “Runner.” It’s not about winning Olympic medals. Long after Maker retires from the sport, his impact on the people he’s inspired will be felt for generations.
Muse Production House and Lucky Hat Entertainment released “Runner” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 19, 2020.