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

But as a budding observe athlete, his highschool intervened — giving him a scholarship and loaning him trainers, which he gave again to the subsequent pupil after he graduated.

For aspiring South Sudanese athletes, coaching has all the time been a problem. Many of them, mentioned Guem, battle to get one sq. meal a day and practice on uneven rocky terrain.

“I think around 60% of athletes do not have even a pair of shoes, so they run barefoot,” he added.

In 2011, South Sudan gained independence and have become the world’s youngest nation. But civil battle erupted two years later, killing an estimated 400,000 individuals and forcing hundreds of thousands from their houses to create Africa’s greatest refugee disaster and the world’s third-largest after Syria and Afghanistan.
Despite the hardships, working stored Guem going. At the 2019 Africa Games held in Morocco, he broke South Sudan’s national record for the 1,500 meters and was chosen to grow to be 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 in the small Japanese city of Maebashi in Gunma prefecture — round a two-hour drive from Tokyo.

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

When the pandemic delayed the Games by one yr, the city of 350,000 individuals 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 and unity

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

The 1,500m runner mentioned he sought to signify South Sudanese states aside from his personal at native and nationwide competitions.

“I’ve never competed for my hometown or my state but always for other states to show my love for them and that they are all equal,” he mentioned.

That considering is consistent with a South Sudanese sports activities pageant dubbed “National Unity Day,” which has been co-organized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a authorities company supporting progress in different nations, and the South Sudan Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. In its fifth yr, that occasion brings collectively younger individuals from throughout South Sudan.

Youths from all over South Sudan come together for the National Unity Day sports festival.

While the individuals come from totally different tribes and ethnic teams that may not see eye-to-eye, the sports activities pageant offers an area for them to search out frequent floor. The youths, for occasion, 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 is one unifying factor that is very necessary for a country like South Sudan,” he added. “When you have war, and you are always kept apart, you don’t come together. And I’m sure the guys went back with different mindsets about others.”

‘Like superheros’

Over in Japan, Guem mentioned he and his crew had discovered a steady surroundings to work in the direction of their objective.

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 alsoo 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’s giving me hope to go and compete with the top 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.

Beyond coaching, the South Sudanese Olympians have accomplished what few different worldwide groups may have the alternative to do. Over the previous yr and a half, they’ve gotten to know Maebashi residents, sampled the native fare, and attended Japanese and pc lessons 4 occasions per week.

“They don’t seem like strangers in Maebashi — it’s more like they are members of the community. I think they’re viewed like superheroes,” mentioned Shunya Miyata, the coordinator for International Cooperation at JICA.

That fandom has even earned them a strong help base.

To date, JICA has bought over 3,000 T-shirts to lift funds for the athletes. Local companies have additionally pitched in. Maebashi city’s dental affiliation pledged free care all through the athlete’s keep, and 10 merchandising machines have been erected in Maebashi to help the South Sudanese crew.

Olympic legacy

Next yr, two athletes who performed an lively half in National Unity Day might be invited to spend six months in Maebashi City as a part of the long-term training camp. The goal is to help the subsequent era of athletes from South Sudan, in keeping with Shinichi Hagiwara, a Maebashi city official.

“Through the South Sudanese athletes, we’ve had the opportunity to think about the idea of peace together and realize that it’s not something that we can take for granted,” mentioned Shinichi Hagiwara, a Maebashi city official.

“People in Maebashi will be rooting for these athletes at the Olympics.”

But with the Games quick approaching — the Opening Ceremony is on July 23 — questions stay over how Tokyo can maintain an enormous sporting occasion and maintain volunteers, athletes, officers — and the Japanese public — protected 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 a number of other prefectures — together with Tokyo — are underneath a state of emergency till the finish of May.
So far, Japan has solely vaccinated about 4.4 million of its 126 million individuals, 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 still worries me because the cases, it seems to be increasing, and the worry is always there, but I am sure that the Olympics will take place,” mentioned Guem, who needs to encourage different youths to channel their vitality to creating South Sudan.

“I’m doing it for my country, not for myself. I want to bring peace in my country,” mentioned Guem.

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