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 – giving 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 rough 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 broke out two years later, killing a valued 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 Africa Games held in Morocco, he broke the national record for the 1,500 meters and was selected to be part of his country’s Olympic team.
Since November 2019, he and three other South Sudanese athletes and their coach live and train 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 ensure that Olympians and their coach can stay in Maebashi – and cement an Olympic. heritage.

Sports and unity

Guem said he and his team’s mission is to promote 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 for them and that they are all equal,” he said.

This reflection is in line with a South Sudanese sports festival called “National Unity Day”, co-organized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a government agency supporting the 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 Day of Unity sports festival.

While the attendees come from different tribes and ethnicities who might disagree, the sports festival provides a space for them to find common ground. Young people, for example, all sleep in the same building, dine together, can freely interact and get to know each other, said Guem, who participated in 2016.

“Sport is a unifying factor that is very necessary 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 achieve their goal.

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 also gave them time to train harder. Michael Machiek, 30 – South Sudan’s first Paralympian – 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 Sudanese team and their coach, Joseph, (far left) in front of an ATM in the town of Maebashi, displaying their country'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 local dishes, and attended Japanese and computer lessons four times a week.

“They don’t appear to be strangers to Maebashi – it’s more like they’re members of the community. I think they’re seen as 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 have also mobilized. The Maebashi Town Dental Association has pledged free care throughout the athlete’s stay and 10 vending machines have been erected in Maebashi to support the South Sudanese team.

Olympic legacy

Next year, two athletes who played an active role in National Unity Day will be invited to spend six months in Maebashi City 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 of the town of Maebashi.

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

But as the Games approach – the opening ceremony will take place on July 23 – questions remain about how Tokyo can stage a massive sporting event and protect volunteers, athletes, officials – and the Japanese public – from Covid-19.

Athlete Abraham Majok Matet Guem and his team say they are participating in the Olympic Games to promote the message of peace and unity for South Sudan.
This concern was amplified by Japan’s battle against a fourth wave. The country has passed 647,000 the total number of coronavirus cases on Wednesday, and several prefectures – including Tokyo – are under a state of emergency until the end of May.
So far, Japan has vaccinated only about 4.4 million of its 126 million inhabitants, 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 worry is still there, but I’m sure the Olympics will be held,” 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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