While the idea of American exceptionalism is generally dunderheaded nonsense, in one arena of international relations at least, the United States for most of the post-WWII period could claim genuine world superiority. Namely, in the arena of refugee resettlement, where the US has historically taken approximately twice as many refugees for resettlement as the rest of the world combined. As with most decent things in the US—national parks and funding for scientific research, for instance—this dominance in terms of refugees resettled has vanished under the current presidential administration. Nevertheless, one of the great legacies of 20th century US foreign policy is its willingness to open the borders and the checkbook to bring in the beleaguered and stateless masses of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Runner fully demonstrates the benefits of US benevolence towards refugees, not that such humanitarian policies need any practical justification. The documentary traces the life of Guor Mading Maker, a Sudanese “lost boy” who was resettled in Concord, New Hampshire just before the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001—in response to which the US set record lows for number of refugees taken in 2002 and 2003 (records since shattered by the 45th elected executive of the country)—and became a track and field star. Guor, essentially orphaned by the civil war that literally ripped Sudan in half in the ‘90s and ‘00s, entered high school in 2001 without knowing a word of English. Soon, he was winning state championships in cross country and track as a distance runner.

His prowess as a middle distance runner made him friends and earned him a scholarship to Iowa State University, where he became an All-American as a freshman. While Guor was making a life for himself in the United States, Sudan signed a peace agreement in 2011 that resulted in the partition of the country and the creation of a new country, South Sudan, still currently the newest country in the world. Guor wanted to represent his country—South Sudan, not Sudan and not the United States—at the 2012 London Olympics, so he tried his first marathon. In a feat which proves his undeniable athletic gifts, he posted an Olympic-qualifying time of 138 minutes in his very first marathon and began preparations for London.

Here is where the story of Guor gets interesting, and also where it shows the benefits of refugee resettlement in the US. South Sudan was too new—and too plagued by the innumerable problems of nascent statehood—to even have a national Olympic committee. A country without a national Olympic committee cannot have Olympians, so what to do with Guor? He flatly—and rightly, for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history—refused to represent Sudan. The US team was already full. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in a rare instance of actually doing the right thing, allowed Guor to participate as a stateless athlete, officially representing the IOC in the London Games. It was a historic and moving event, capped by the appearance of a massive assembly of London-based South Sudanese refugees in attendance during the marathon event to cheer him on. It was a heartwarming story of genuine goodwill and positive feelings. If the US had not invited Guor to New Hampshire, it never would have happened. Instead, Guor became the sporting hero of a war-torn, post-genocide state and the Olympics, for the first time since Berlin in 1936, was a showcase for all that is good about humanity.

Runner tells this famous story by focusing almost exclusively on Guor. The viewer gets to know the remarkable man who escaped the brutalization and starvation that surrounded one of the deadliest wars in the world since 1945 (more than two million died in Sudan during the war). Guor is charismatic, and so is the filmmaking. It shows the goodness that derives from the US serving as safe haven, both for the US and for the world, as Guor would mobilize the people of South Sudan in a headlong drive to try to qualify for Rio in 2016. There are moments of raw emotion—I, a muscly, 30-something-year-old grown man who works construction and played college football, admit to outright bawling twice—and happy release. This is an excellent sports documentary, replete with the usual tropes of that genre, and a celebration of the one thing the US used to do better than anyone else. For those interested in more Sudan stories, Runner would make the ideal opener in a documentary triple feature, to be followed by Lost Boys of Sudan and We Come as Friends, respectively.

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