Thousands of athletes from all over the world are in London for the 2012 Olympics. Many of them are already stars, having trained their entire lives for this chance at gold. For some, getting there has been a struggle against poverty, politics, prejudice, and other disadvantages. Here are a few that you'll want to know before you see them compete.
1. South Sudan: Guor Marial
DARRYL WEBB/Reuters /Landov
Twenty-eight-year-old Guor Marial was born in what is now South Sudan, the world's youngest nation. He became a refugee of the Sudanese conflict in 1993 when he was only nine years old, as he fled across border after border seeking asylum from the violence. Marial was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2001, and is a permanent resident here. An All-American cross-country runner and an accomplished marathoner, Marial rejected an offer from the Sudan Olympic Committee to run under its flag at the London Olympics.
"Never," he said of his refusal to run for Sudan. "For me to even consider that is a betrayal. My family lost 28 members in the war with Sudan. Millions of my people were killed by Sudan forces. I can only forgive, but I cannot honor and glorify a country that killed my people."
However, South Sudan, the nation that Marial considers his own, does not yet have an official Olympic Committee. The International Olympic Committee has granted Marial the right to participate as an Independent Olympic Athlete, a category reserved for those in such situations.
2. Peru: Gladys Tejeda
Four years ago, Gladys Tejeda had never heard of the Olympics. In London, she will be running the marathon for Peru. Tejeda comes from a poor farming family, in which the many children began working at around eight years old. The 26-year-old has been an outstanding runner since she was a child, though, and once the idea of an Olympic run was raised by her brother while the family watched the Beijing games on their very first TV set, Tejeda was there. Living at 13,000 feet above sea level helped her become a marathoner, as her endurance level is extremely high. Tejeda qualified for the Olympics on her very first marathon, and the London competition will be only her third.
3. Malaysia: Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi
Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi will compete in the London Olympics as the first female shooting sports competitor from Malaysia. She is also eight months pregnant. Therefore, she joins a small and exclusive club of athletes who go for the gold while expecting. However, other competitors were in the early stages of pregnancy. Taibi is a bit concerned that the baby may kick at the exact moment she must aim with world-class accuracy. Malaysian officials were more worried about her ability to travel to London, but with her doctor’s blessing, she was cleared for the long flight.
4. South Africa: Oscar Pistorius
South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius will compete in the individual 400 meters and the 4×400-meter relay at the London Olympics. He runs on specially-designed carbon-fiber prosthetics called Cheetahs, which sparked an ongoing controversy about the place of prosthetic enhancements in competitive sports. In 2008, Pistorius won a court battle to compete for an Olympic spot. However, he then failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. This year, Pistorius will be the first amputee to compete in track at the Olympics.
5. South Africa: Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya is a 21-year-old track and field star from South Africa. In 2009, Semenya became known around the world, not for winning the world championship in the 800 meter event, but for suspicions that she is not fully female. The International Association of Athletics Federations ordered gender-verification testing, which humiliated the then 18-year-old, who had never questioned her own sex. She was banned from racing for 11 months, during which she underwent a barrage of tests. Semenya was finally cleared to compete as female, and will not only run, but will carry the flag for the South African team.
6. Iran: Behdad Salimi
Weightlifter Behdad Salimi is the world's strongest man, designated so after he lifted 472 pounds at the world weight-lifting championships in Paris in 2011. Salimi began his athletic career as a gymnast, but found his niche when a friend suggested he try weightlifting instead. Of the 54 Olympic athletes from Iran, Salimi is the country's best hope for a gold medal.
7. Japan: Hiroshi Hoketsu
Hiroshi Hoketsu is representing Japan in Olympic dressage competition for the third time: he competed in Beijing in 2008 and in Tokyo in 1964. Yes, 1964. Hoketsu was born in 1941 and is 71 years old. He has spent the past five years grooming his horse Whisper for the event. Whisper is only 15. Surprisingly, Hoketsu is not the oldest Olympian ever. In 1920, Swedish shooter Oscar Swahn won his sixth medal at age 72.
8. Saudi Arabia: Sarah Attar
Saudi Arabia has never sent women to the Olympics before, but pressure from the IOC led them to place two women on the 2012 team. One is Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in judo despite never competing in a national event (Saudi Arabia has none for women). The other female competitor is track runner Sarah Attar, who grew up in the United States and is a current student at Pepperdine University. Attar holds dual U.S./Saudi citizenship, and will run the 800 meter event. When Attar was invited to represent Saudi Arabia, her parents requested all photos of her be removed from Pepperdine's website, and she changed her usual American dress to long sleeves and head coverings. She says she hopes her participation in the Olympics will open doors for women athletes in that country.
9. Afghanistan: Tahmina Kohistani
Sprinter Tahmina Kohistani is one of only two track runners who will compete for Afghanistan in the London Olympics -and the only female. She faces some long odds because of the lack of support from her country -- which loves sports but only in those events they expect to win -- and because of the air pollution in Kabul. However, Kohistani has the freedom to run, which would not have been tolerated under the Taliban, and the support of her family, which many Afghan female athletes do not have. Like other Muslim athletes, she runs fully covered, including practicing in a baseball cap in place of a hijab -although she will wear a headscarf at the games. Kohistani is a national champion in her events, the 100 and 200 meters, but her times would place her in high school competition in most countries. Kohistani is proud just to participate in the Olympics. See her in a video interview.
10. United States: Kayla Harrison
Judoka Kayla Harrison started her Olympic journey farther behind than most U.S. athletes. As a teenager, she was sexually abused by her judo coach for three years. Harrison finally stood up and testified against her attacker in court, and he was convicted. But the small-town publicity of the trial forced her to move to Boston and start over. Harrison's new trainer got her into therapy so she could put the past behind her and look forward to victory. Five years later, she has graduated from high school, earned her EMT certification, is engaged to a firefighter, won a world championship, and is favored to win a gold medal in London.