South Sudanese athletes to crown extended stay in Japan in style
The five-member South Sudanese delegation to the Tokyo Games arrived in Maebashi in Gunma prefecture, north of the capital, in November 2019, expecting a stay of less than a year to develop. and perform on the biggest stage in sport.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the games to be postponed to March 2020 and cast doubt on their stay beyond the originally slated end after last year’s Paralympic Games. But funds raised through a donation program in Japan kept the group in the city until after this year’s games.
However, uncertainty persisted on the feasibility of holding the games during a serious health crisis. Being the only delegation to spend so much time preparing in the host country, the news of their departure was not surprisingly happy.
Members of the South Sudanese delegation to the Tokyo Games attend a ceremony in Maebashi on July 16, 2021. (Kyodo)
“Of course that’s good news for me, I’m really excited about it and I’m relieved to hear this (the games will continue),” said Abraham Guem, a 1,500-meter runner. “Being my first time at such an event, it would have been very sad if I spent two years here and the games were canceled.”
Training on a good track five days a week, having three meals a day while attending a Japanese language school, the daily environment could not have been more different from the athletes’ home nation, which is became independent in 2011 from Sudan but experienced another war from 2013 to 2018, with 400,000 lives lost.
With an unexpectedly extended period of stay, the delegation of three Olympians, a Paralympian and a coach were able to reap benefits on the pitch that would not have been possible if things had gone as originally planned.
As the only long-distance runner in the delegation, Guem, for example, began training with local students at Ikuei University in January after finding it easier to outdo himself with rivals covering similar distances.
“Before I came here, life was very hard. My distance from home to Juba’s training ground was about 17 kilometers and it was always difficult on foot. Sometimes I ate a meal once a day. or two, ”Guem said.
“Training with students has helped me a lot. On long distances, keeping the pace alone in training is very difficult. But when you run in a group, it’s very easy.
Competing in Japanese national races that normally did not include foreign athletes was another experience made possible only by these special circumstances.
While the biggest scene will undoubtedly be the games races, the efforts of Guem and the local staff who support him have already paid off. During an April race in Tokyo, the 22-year-old rewrote his national record in 3 minutes, 42.99 seconds.
“The record was confirmed as the official national record of South Sudan. We wanted to give Abraham a chance to set a new record by allowing him to participate in the event,” said Hiroshi Yoshino, head of the federation. Maebashi Athletics Center.
While mainly coaching short-distance runners, overseeing Lucia Moris to improve her national record in the women’s 200m, Yoshino has seen roving runners gain strength through regular weight training and better communication.
“It’s not a constant growth because of the injuries, but participating in competitions has helped and we have developed a great relationship,” he added, referring to the trips they made together to Tokyo as well. than in the prefectures of Niigata and Shizuoka and in the case of the Paralympic athlete. Michael Machiek, in Kagawa prefecture, further away, for the Japanese para-athletics championships at the end of April.
Members of the South Sudanese delegation to the Tokyo Games train in Maebashi in April 2021. (Kyodo)
A month earlier, Machiek, who runs the 200 and 400, also shared the track in an event in Tokyo with Tomoki Tagawa, bronze medalist in the 2016 Paralympic 4×100-meter relay. It resulted in two joint training sessions between the delegation of South Sudan and runners from the Tagawa Para-Athletics Club in May and June.
“This is a rare opportunity and running with foreign athletes helps keep the team and myself motivated,” said Tagawa, who presented Machiek with a hand rest to place his amputated right arm at the start. of a race to stabilize.
“I hope our interaction will help Michael promote parasport more once he returns to South Sudan.”
Running regularly on the track had a downside for South Sudanese athletes, used to running on softer sand. Guem injured his right Achilles tendon in early May during a training camp with the university and worked to be in great shape for games.
But whatever his final results, Guem has developed a special bond with Japan.
“The most interesting word was arigato (thank you). Ariga was the name my mother gave me when I was young, meaning ‘a child born in a very difficult situation’ when South Sudan was in so much trouble. “, did he declare. “When you say arigato, it means ‘Ariga is present’ in my language, so it just sounded perfect.”
“We also visited a primary school and I studied a lot when I was there, trying to see how the kids were organized, eating their lunches together and watching them clean the room like adults do,” a- he said, adding that there were “very beautiful things” that he admired about them.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency, the development aid arm of the government, has helped promote peace in South Sudan by sponsoring a new National Sports Events Unity Day since 2016, the stage on which the delegation members performed en route to Japan.
The town of Maebashi has also decided to accept an athlete from South Sudan every six months in the run-up to the Paris Games in 2024 to keep their developing ties with the African nation.
“You will be like a new beginner again in this life in South Sudan, and it will be more difficult for us than for the people who have always been there,” Guem said of his possible return home. “But we have a lot of things that we have learned here that we would really like to take home.”
“Seeing how the people here greet each other and the respect they show each other, there is no way you will have a problem with anyone if this is the life of everyone in the community. this prevails, it will be a very harmonious. “
Members of the South Sudanese delegation to the Tokyo Games attend a Japanese course in Maebashi in April 2021. (Kyodo)
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