The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic has not deterred a handful of athletes from South Sudan, who continue their training in Japan as if nothing had happened. The postponement of the Tokyo Games is not a problem, assures their coach Joseph Rensio Tobia Omirok, interviewed Maebashi, a city two hours north of the Japanese capital, where he and his four athletes have taken up residence since last November .
I’m happy because I can still train, while in other countries, there is more training and the athletes are confined because of the coronavirus, he explains. His small team of runners (three men, including a Paralympian, and a woman) continues the daily training Maebashi.
This city of 340,000 inhabitants has decided to continue hosting its South Sudanese hosts. They have an on-site athletics track, a luxury inaccessible in their country, as well as a small weapon of physical trainers and volunteer interpreters. We are eager to continue to offer them our support, says Shinichi Hagiwara, a municipal sports official for Maebashi.
Sudanese athletes (dr., Abraham Majok Matet Guem, 1500 meter specialist) share a track with Japanese athletes Maebashi. Image: AFP.
The city has collected more than 14 million yen (around 118,000 euros) through Japan and continues to raise funds to host the team until July, as planned before the postponement of the Olympics, decided in late March.
A very peaceful environment
Faced with a recent rise in coronavirus cases in Japan – however far behind the levels observed in Europe and the United States – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency on Tuesday for seven prefectures in the country, including those of Tokyo and Osaka. The inhabitants are taken to stay at home as much as possible for a month. Gunma prefecture, where the city of Maebashi is located, is saved for the moment.
Since arriving in Japan, South Sudanese have visited schools and socialized with children, participated in local events and learned a few basics of Japanese. They are happy to talk to their hosts about their little-known country, one of the poorest on the planet, which became independent from Sudan in 2011 and just emerged from a devastating civil war.
Before coming to Japan, I didn’t know anything about Japanese, says Abraham Majok Matet Guem, a 1500-meter specialist aged 20. The love I have received here has been beyond my hopes. So I’m not that homesick, because I’m in a very peaceful environment, with extremely caring people. It surprised me a lot, he adds.
Unchanged Olympic dreams
South Sudanese athletes would like to return their hosts one day. At the moment, people are still afraid to come to South Sudan. But we believe that in the near future everyone will have the opportunity to go there, hopes the athlete. We would be happy to see people from Maebashi there too.
The middle-distance runner, on whom his mother and his seven brothers and sisters who have stayed in the country rely to help them, still has great ambitions for the Tokyo Olympics, even postponed until summer 2021. My dream is always to become a medal Olympic (…). I will continue to train and I want to become a champion one day. I still have time.
After July, the fate of South Sudanese athletes in Maebashi will be decided by the municipality after consultation with their country’s Olympic authority and the Japanese government in particular, according to Hagiwara.
A first case of Covid-19 contamination was recently announced by the authorities of South Sudan, whose borders and international airport were closed in an attempt to protect the country, badly equipped to face the pandemic.