The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games due to the coronavirus crisis was a major setback for countless athletes. But, having come to Japan in November, 2019 for pre-Olympic training, the South Sudanese national track and field team has chosen to use the postponement to its advantage and stay based in Japan.
Part of the reasoning behind the postponement of the Games was increasing pressure on the Organizing Committee and the IOC from athletes and sports associations concerned about the cancelation of qualifying events and quarantine restrictions that made it difficult for some athletes to train. Still a young and poor country, in the South Sudan even if athletes want to train the only places to work out are empty fields. It's hard to find the kind of facilities people take for granted in Japan. As a result, when the national team received news of the first-ever Olympic postponement, they decided to stay in Japan until at least July in order to maximize their training opportunities.
The South Sudanese team staying in Maebashi is made up of five people, one female and two male Olympians, one male Paralympian, and one coach. In the spirit of supporting peace through sports, the Maebashi city government decided in late March to extend its support for the team by providing accommodation and meals, a rented public truck, volunteer coaches and interpreters. The team members have visited local schools and taken part in local events, telling students and residents about the situation in their country, which became independent in 2011 and is still recovering from the effects of civil war. They've also done training sessions with local children and begun to study basic Japanese.
Day by day the team's athletes spend their time training in a land over 10,000 km distant from their homeland, but they say that they are enjoying their lives here. Slated to compete in the men's 1500 m, 21-year-old Abraham Majok Matet Guem said, "Before we came to Japan, I didn't know what kind of people lived there. I never expected them to be so welcoming. Thanks to them I don't really miss my own country. It's a very calm place to be and we're surrounded by kindhearted people. It was such a surprise."
By reallocating local taxes, the city has so far put together 14 million yen [~$130,000 USD] for the South Sudanese team and is continuing to work on raising the rest of the money needed to cover the estimated 20 million yen cost [~$185,000 USD] of having them stay until July. Immediately after the postponement of the Games was announced, city officials had promised the team that they would be able to host them until at least that point. Maebashi city sports department official Shinichi Hagiwara said, "We'd like to continue supporting them." What happens from August on will be determined based on discussions with the South Sudanese Olympic Committee, the Japanese government, and the team itself.
The athletes hope that at some point in the future they will be able to invite the people of Maebashi to visit the South Sudan in return for the welcome they have received. Guem said, "People would be afraid to go to the South Sudan as it is now. But I believe that a day is coming soon when our country will be a peaceful place and everyone will have the freedom to travel. I would be very happy to meet the people of Maebashi again there."
Having left his mother and seven brothers and sisters behind in the South Sudan to come train in Japan, Guem said that the Olympics' postponement was only a minor setback to achieving his goals. "My dream has always been to become an Olympic medalist before I retire from track and field," he said. "I want to keep training so that someday I will become a champion. There is still time to make that happen."
translated by Brett Larner