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

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

However as a budding observe 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. A lot of them, mentioned Guem, wrestle to get one sq. meal a day and practice on uneven rocky terrain.

“I feel round 60% of athletes shouldn’t have even a pair of footwear, in order that they run barefoot,” he added.

In 2011, South Sudan gained independence and have become the world’s youngest nation. However civil struggle erupted two years later, killing an estimated 400,000 folks and forcing hundreds of thousands from their houses to create Africa’s largest refugee disaster and the world’s third-largest after Syria and Afghanistan.
The mayor of Maebashi posing with the South Sudan Olympic team.
Regardless of the hardships, operating saved Guem going. On the 2019 Africa Video games held in Morocco, he broke South Sudan’s national record for the 1,500 meters and was chosen to develop into a part of his nation’s Olympic crew.
Since November 2019, he and three different South Sudanese athletes and their coach have been residing and coaching within the small Japanese metropolis of Maebashi in Gunma prefecture — round a two-hour drive from Tokyo.

Whereas many Japanese cities and cities that signed as much as host Olympic groups have been compelled to rethink their plans as a result of ongoing pandemic, Maebashi is an exception.

When the pandemic delayed the Video games by one yr, town 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 may keep on in Maebashi — and cement an Olympic legacy.

Sports activities and unity

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

The 1,500m runner mentioned he sought to symbolize South Sudanese states aside 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 point out my love for them and that they’re all equal,” he mentioned.

That considering is in keeping with a South Sudanese sports activities competition dubbed “Nationwide Unity Day,” which has been co-organized by the Japan Worldwide Cooperation Company (JICA), a authorities company supporting progress in different nations, and the South Sudan Ministry of Tradition, Youth and Sports activities. In its fifth yr, 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.

Whereas the individuals come from completely different tribes and ethnic teams that may not see eye-to-eye, the sports activities competition supplies an area for them to search out widespread floor. The youths, as an example, all sleep in the identical constructing, dine collectively, and may work together freely, and get to know one another, mentioned Guem, who took half in 2016.

“Sports activities is one unifying issue that may be very crucial for a rustic like South Sudan,” he added. “When you’ve struggle, and you’re at all times saved aside, you do not come collectively. And I am positive the fellows went again with completely different mindsets about others.”

‘Like superheros’

Over in Japan, Guem mentioned he and his crew had discovered a secure atmosphere to work in the direction of their aim.

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 additionally 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 is giving me hope to go and compete with the highest 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.

Past coaching, the South Sudanese Olympians have accomplished what few different worldwide groups can have the chance to do. Over the previous yr and a half, they’ve gotten to know Maebashi residents, sampled the native fare, and attended Japanese and laptop courses 4 occasions per week.

“They do not look like strangers in Maebashi — it is extra like they’re members of the group. I feel they’re seen like superheroes,” mentioned Shunya Miyata, the coordinator for Worldwide Cooperation at JICA.

That fandom has even earned them a stable assist base.

Thus far, 3,000 T-shirts have been bought to boost funds for the athletes. Native companies have additionally pitched in. Maebashi metropolis’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

Subsequent yr, two athletes who performed an energetic half in Nationwide Unity Day will probably be invited to spend six months in Maebashi Metropolis as a part of the long-term training camp. The goal is to assist the subsequent era of athletes from South Sudan, in line with Shinichi Hagiwara, a Maebashi metropolis official.

“By means of the South Sudanese athletes, we have had the chance to consider the thought of peace collectively and notice that it isn’t one thing that we will take as a right,” mentioned Shinichi Hagiwara, a Maebashi metropolis official.

“Folks in Maebashi will probably be rooting for these athletes on the Olympics.”

However with the Video games quick approaching — the Opening Ceremony is on July 23 — questions stay over how Tokyo can maintain an enormous sporting occasion and hold 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 beneath a state of emergency till the tip of Might.
Thus far, Japan has solely vaccinated about 4.4 million of its 126 million folks, with roughly just 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 growing, and the concern is at all times there, however I’m positive that the Olympics will happen,” mentioned Guem, who needs to encourage different youths to channel their power to growing South Sudan.

“I am doing it for my nation, not for myself. I need to carry peace in my nation,” mentioned Guem.

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