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Tokyo 2020: The Japanese city that’s rooting for South Sudan at the Olympics

Guem — now a 21-year-old Olympian representing South Sudan — was so quick he shortly caught the eye of a coach, who purchased him correct trainers and sportswear.

But as a budding monitor athlete, his highschool intervened — giving him a scholarship and loaning him trainers, which he gave again to the subsequent scholar after he graduated.

For aspiring South Sudanese athletes, coaching has at all times been a problem. Many of them, mentioned Guem, battle to get one sq. meal a day and practice on uneven rocky terrain.

“I believe round 60% of athletes should not have even a pair of sneakers, so that they run barefoot,” he added.

In 2011, South Sudan gained independence and have become the world’s youngest nation. But civil battle erupted two years later, killing an estimated 400,000 folks and forcing hundreds of thousands from their properties to create Africa’s greatest refugee disaster and the world’s third-largest after Syria and Afghanistan.
The mayor of Maebashi posing with the South Sudan Olympic team.
Despite the hardships, working stored Guem going. At the 2019 Africa Games held in Morocco, he broke South Sudan’s national record for the 1,500 meters and was chosen to change into a part of his nation’s Olympic crew.
Since November 2019, he and three different South Sudanese athletes and their coach have been dwelling and coaching in the small Japanese city of Maebashi in Gunma prefecture — round a two-hour drive from Tokyo.

While many Japanese cities and cities that signed as much as host Olympic groups have been pressured to rethink their plans attributable to the ongoing pandemic, Maebashi is an exception.

When the pandemic delayed the Games by one 12 months, the city of 350,000 folks raised nearly $300,000 nationwide in taxes and donations like trainers and athletic gear in December 2020 to make sure the Olympians and their coach might keep on in Maebashi — and cement an Olympic legacy.

Sports and unity

Guem mentioned he and his crew’s mission is to advertise the significance of unity at residence in South Sudan.

The 1,500m runner mentioned he sought to characterize South Sudanese states apart from his personal at native and nationwide competitions.

“I’ve by no means competed for my hometown or my state however at all times for different states to indicate my love for them and that they’re all equal,” he mentioned.

That considering is consistent with a South Sudanese sports activities competition dubbed “National Unity Day,” which has been co-organized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a authorities company supporting progress in different nations, and the South Sudan Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. In its fifth 12 months, that occasion brings collectively younger folks from throughout South Sudan.

Youths from all over South Sudan come together for the National Unity Day sports festival.

While the members come from totally different tribes and ethnic teams which may not see eye-to-eye, the sports activities competition offers an area for them to search out widespread floor. The youths, for occasion, all sleep in the identical constructing, dine collectively, and might work together freely, and get to know one another, mentioned Guem, who took half in 2016.

“Sports is one unifying issue that may be very obligatory for a rustic like South Sudan,” he added. “When you could have battle, and you might be at all times stored aside, you do not come collectively. And I’m positive the guys went again with totally different mindsets about others.”

‘Like superheros’

Over in Japan, Guem mentioned he and his crew had discovered a steady setting to work in direction of their objective.

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 alsoo gave them time to coach more durable. Michael Machiek, 30 — South Sudan’s first Paralympian — mentioned he broke two private bests whereas in Japan.

“That’s giving me hope to go and compete with the prime Paralympic athletes,” he mentioned.

The South Sudan team and their coach, Joseph, (far left) in front of a vending machine in Maebashi city, displaying their nation's flag.

Beyond coaching, the South Sudanese Olympians have achieved what few different worldwide groups could have the alternative to do. Over the previous 12 months and a half, they’ve gotten to know Maebashi residents, sampled the native fare, and attended Japanese and laptop courses 4 instances every week.

“They do not seem to be strangers in Maebashi — it is extra like they’re members of the neighborhood. I believe they’re seen like superheroes,” mentioned Shunya Miyata, the coordinator for International Cooperation at JICA.

That fandom has even earned them a strong assist base.

To date, JICA has bought over 3,000 T-shirts to lift funds for the athletes. Local companies have additionally pitched in. Maebashi city’s dental affiliation pledged free care all through the athlete’s keep, and 10 merchandising machines have been erected in Maebashi to assist the South Sudanese crew.

Olympic legacy

Next 12 months, two athletes who performed an lively half in National Unity Day might be invited to spend six months in Maebashi City as a part of the long-term training camp. The intention is to assist the subsequent era of athletes from South Sudan, in keeping with Shinichi Hagiwara, a Maebashi city official.

“Through the South Sudanese athletes, we have had the alternative to consider the concept of peace collectively and understand that it is not one thing that we are able to take for granted,” mentioned Shinichi Hagiwara, a Maebashi city official.

“People in Maebashi might be rooting for these athletes at the Olympics.”

But with the Games quick approaching — the Opening Ceremony is on July 23 — questions stay over how Tokyo can maintain a large sporting occasion and maintain volunteers, athletes, officers — and the Japanese public — secure from Covid-19.

Althlete 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.
That concern has been amplified by Japan’s battle with a fourth wave. The nation handed 647,000 complete coronavirus instances on Wednesday, and several other prefectures — together with Tokyo — are underneath a state of emergency till the finish of May.
So far, Japan has solely vaccinated about 4.4 million of its 126 million folks, with roughly only one% of the inhabitants completely vaccinated.

The considered one other Olympic delay is on Guem’s thoughts, however for now, he is staying optimistic.

“It nonetheless worries me as a result of the instances, it appears to be rising, and the fear is at all times there, however I’m positive that the Olympics will happen,” mentioned Guem, who desires to encourage different youths to channel their vitality to growing South Sudan.

“I’m doing it for my nation, not for myself. I wish to deliver peace in my nation,” mentioned Guem.

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