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Sports : Tokyo 2020: the Japanese city that supports South Sudan at the Olympics


Guem – now a 21-year-old Olympian representing South Sudan – was so quick that he quickly caught the attention of a trainer, who bought him suitable running shoes and sportswear.

But as an aspiring track athlete, his high school stepped in by offering him a scholarship and loaning him running shoes, which he returned to the next student after he graduated.

For aspiring South Sudanese athletes, training has always been a challenge. Many of them, Guem said, struggle to get a square meal a day and train on uneven rocky terrain.

“I think about 60% of athletes don’t even have a pair of shoes, so they run barefoot,” he added.

In 2011, South Sudan gained independence and became the youngest country in the world. But civil war erupted two years later, killing an estimated 400,000 people and forcing millions from their homes to create the largest refugee crisis in Africa and the third in the world after Syria and Afghanistan.
Despite the difficulties, the race allowed Guem to continue. At the 2019 African Games held in Morocco, he broke South Sudan’s national record in the 1,500 meters and was selected to be part of his country’s Olympic team.
As of November 2019, he and three other South Sudanese athletes and their coach have lived and trained in the small Japanese town of Maebashi in Gunma Prefecture, about a two-hour drive from Tokyo.

While many Japanese cities that have signed up to host Olympic teams have been forced to rethink their plans due to the ongoing pandemic, Maebashi is an exception.

When the pandemic delayed the Games by a year, the city of 350,000 people raised nearly $ 300,000 nationwide in taxes and donations like running shoes and sports equipment in December 2020 to secure that the Olympians and their coach can stay in Maebashi – and cement an Olympic Games legacy.

Sport and unity

Guem said he and his team were tasked with promoting the importance of unity at home in South Sudan.

The 1,500m runner said he seeks to represent South Sudanese states other than his own in local and national competitions.

“I have never competed for my hometown or my state, but always for other states to show them my love and that they are all equal,” he said.

This reflection is in line with a South Sudanese sports festival dubbed “National Unity Day”, which was co-organized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a government agency supporting growth in other countries. , and the Ministry of Culture of South Sudan. , Youth and Sports. In its fifth year, this event brings together young people from all over South Sudan.

Young people from across South Sudan come together for the National Unity Day sports festival.

While the participants come from different tribes and ethnic groups who might not get along, the sports festival offers them a space to find common ground. Young people, for example, all sleep in the same building, dine together and can freely interact and get to know each other, said Guem, who participated in 2016.

“Sport is a very necessary unifying factor for a country like South Sudan,” he added. “When you have war and you’re still apart, you don’t come together. And I’m sure the guys came back with different mindsets about each other.”

“Like superheroes”

In Japan, Guem said he and his team found a stable environment to work towards their goal.

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 also gave them time to train harder. Michael Machiek, 30, South Sudan’s first Paralympic athlete, said he broke two personal bests in Japan.

“It gives me hope to go and compete with the best Paralympic athletes,” he said.

The South Sudan team and their coach, Joseph, (far left) in front of an ATM in Maebashi town, displaying their nation's flag.

Beyond training, the South Sudanese Olympians have done what few other international teams will have the opportunity to do. Over the past year and a half, they’ve gotten to know the people of Maebashi, sampled the local cuisine, and attended Japanese and computer lessons four times a week.

“They don’t seem like strangers in Maebashi, it’s more like community members. I think they are considered superheroes, ”said Shunya Miyata, international cooperation coordinator at JICA.

This fandom even earned them a solid base of support.

To date, 3,000 T-shirts have been sold to raise funds for athletes. Local businesses also participated. The Maebashi Town Dental Association has pledged free treatment for the athlete’s entire stay, and 10 vending machines have been erected in Maebashi to support the South Sudanese team.

Olympic legacy

Next year, two athletes who actively participated in National Unity Day will be invited to spend six months in Maebashi town as part of the long-term training camp. The aim is to support the next generation of South Sudanese athletes, according to Shinichi Hagiwara, an official in the city of Maebashi.

“Thanks to the South Sudanese athletes, we had the opportunity to think together about the idea of ​​peace and to realize that it is not something that we can take for granted,” said Shinichi Hagiwara, an official. from the town of Maebashi.

“The people of Maebashi will support these athletes at the Olympics.”

But with the Games fast approaching – the opening ceremony is July 23 – questions remain about how Tokyo can host a large-scale sporting event and protect volunteers, athletes, officials – and the public. Japanese – from Covid-19.

Athlete Abraham Majok Matet Guem and his team say they are participating in the Olympics to promote the message of peace and unity for South Sudan.
This concern was amplified by the Battle of Japan with a fourth wave. The country recorded 647,000 cases of coronavirus in total on Wednesday, and several prefectures, including Tokyo, are in a state of emergency until the end of May.
So far, Japan has only vaccinated about 4.4 million of its 126 million people, with only about 1% of the population fully vaccinated.

The idea of ​​another Olympic delay is on Guem’s mind, but for now he remains optimistic.

“It still worries me because the cases, it seems to be increasing, and the concern is still there, but I am sure that the Olympics will take place,” said Guem, who wants to encourage other young people to channel their energy towards the Developing South. Sudan.

“I am doing it for my country, not for myself. I want to bring peace to my country,” Guem said.



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