Shinya Tomonari, chief representative of the JICA South Sudan Office, expresses thanks for the support offered by the city of Maebashi, at the city hall. He said people from South Sudan are highly athletic and there are expectations that the athletes will perform well. (Mainichi/ Atsuko Suzuki)

 

MAEBASHI -- A group of athletes from South Sudan in East Africa will come to Japan in September and spend nearly a year in this eastern Japan city preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) had been searching for a place in Japan that could accept the athletes, as they have no training facilities in their own country, which has been embroiled in civil war and other armed conflicts over the past 60 years.

The cost of accommodating the athletes in the Gunma Prefecture city is expected to reach about 20 million yen. This will be covered by "hometown taxes" the city will collect in January next year. Under the hometown tax system, people can donate money to municipalities, and in exchange receive income and residential tax credits.

The team from South Sudan will consist of five members: three Olympic athletes, one Paralympic athlete, and a coach. They will be competing in athletics.

According to the JICA, this will mark the first time for a local body to accept athletes from a particular country over such a long term. The city says it hopes the athletes will receive support from throughout Japan.

South Sudan became independent in 2011 following the First Sudanese Civil War that continued for 17 years from 1955, and the Second Sudanese Civil War that began in 1983 and went on for 22 years. According to the JICA's South Sudan office, there have been repeated clashes between armed forces over the government administration, which at one point had left over 4 million people displaced within and outside the country. In September last year, a peace agreement was reached, and the security situation in the capital is starting to calm down again.

As a result of the conflict, however, athletes have no training facilities and have had to practice on open areas of sandy ground. Athletes without shoes run barefoot. Nevertheless, at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, three athletes from South Sudan represented the country for the first time since its founding. A national sports meet aimed to promote ethnic collaboration is held yearly, and public interest in the coming Tokyo Games is increasing.

Four athletes from South Sudan will be picked in trials to represent their country at the games. The Olympic hopefuls include at least one with a background as a refugee. The Olympic team will travel to Japan sometime around September this year, and will remain in Maebashi until around July, when they move to the athletes' village in Tokyo. They will live in an apartment borrowed by the city and train at Maebashi Sports Park and other facilities. It is expected that they will interact with local residents in events during their stay in the country.

If the city is unable to amass the necessary funds through the hometown tax system, it will apply funds from the system whose use taxpayers have chosen to leave up to the mayor.

Shinya Tomonari, chief representative of the JICA South Sudan Office, commented, "We expect good things from the new relationship that will be cultivated with the city of Maebashi and Japan."

(Japanese original by Atsuko Suzuki, Maebashi Bureau)

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