Members of South Sudan's Tokyo Games delegation attend a ceremony in Maebashi on July 16, 2021. (Kyodo)
South Sudan's five-member Tokyo Games delegation arrived in Maebashi in Gunma Prefecture, north of the capital, in November 2019, expecting a stay of less than a year to tune up and perform on sport's biggest stage.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the games' postponement in March 2020 and cast doubts on their stay beyond the originally scheduled end after the Paralympics last year. But funds secured via a donation program in Japan ensured the group will remain in the city until after this year's games.
The uncertainty continued, nonetheless, over the feasibility of holding the games during a severe health crisis. Being the sole delegation to spend such a long time preparing in the host nation, the news of them going ahead was not surprisingly a
"Of course it's good news for me, I really feel excited about it and I'm relieved to hear that (the games will go on)," said Abraham Guem, a 1,500-meter runner. "Being my first time to participate in such an event, it would have been very sad if I spend two years here and the games are canceled."
Training on a proper track five days a week, having three meals a day while going to a Japanese language school, the daily environment could not have been more different from the athletes' home nation, which became independent in 2011 from Sudan but experienced another civil war from 2013 through 2018, with a reported 400,000 lives lost.
With their period of stay unexpectedly extended, the delegation of three Olympians, one Paralympian and a coach could reap benefits on the field that would not have been possible had things gone as originally scheduled.
As the only long-distance runner in the delegation, Guem, for instance, began training with local Ikuei University students this January after finding it easier to push himself with rivals running similar distances.
"Before we came here, life was very hard. My distance from home to the training ground in Juba was around 17 kilometers and it was always difficult walking that. Sometimes I had a meal once in a day or two," Guem said.
"Training with students helped me a lot. In long distances, keeping the pace alone in training is very difficult. But when you are running in the group, it's very easy."
Running in Japanese domestic races that don't normally include overseas athletes was another experience only made possible by these peculiar circumstances.
While the biggest stage will undoubtedly be the races at the games, the efforts of Guem and the local staff supporting him have already borne fruit. At an April race in Tokyo, the 22-year-old rewrote his national record in a time of 3 minutes, 42.99 seconds.
"The record has been 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 run in the event," said Hiroshi Yoshino, the head of Maebashi's local athletics federation.
While coaching short distance runners principally, overseeing Lucia Moris improve her national record in the women's 200 in the process, Yoshino has seen the traveling runners gain strength through regular weight training and improved communication.
"It's not a constant growth because of injuries, but taking part in competitions helped and we've developed a great rapport," he added, referring to trips they made together to Tokyo as well as Niigata and Shizuoka prefectures and in the case of Paralympian Michael Machiek, to further-afield Kagawa Prefecture for the Japan para-athletics championships in late April.
Members of South Sudan's Tokyo Games delegation train in Maebashi in April 2021. (Kyodo)
A month earlier, Machiek, who runs the 200 and 400, also shared the track in a Tokyo event with Tomoki Tagawa, a bronze medalist in the 2016 Paralympics 4x100-meter relay. It led to two joint training sessions between the South Sudan delegation and runners from Tagawa's para-athletics club in May and June.
"It's a rare opportunity and running with foreign athletes helps keep up the motivation of both the team and myself," said Tagawa, who introduced a handmade rest to Machiek to place his amputated right arm at the start of a race to steady himself.
"I hope our interaction will help Michael promote para sports further once he goes back to South Sudan."
Running on the track regularly did have a downside for the South Sudan athletes, who were used to running on softer sand. Guem hurt his right Achilles tendon in early May at a training camp with the university and has been working to get fully fit for the 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 lots of troubles," he said. "When you say arigato, it means 'Ariga is present' in my language so it sounded just perfect."
"We also visited an elementary school and I studied a lot when I was there, trying to see how kids were organized, eating their lunches together and watching them clean the room like adults do," he said, adding there were "very nice things" that he admired about them.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency, the government's development aid arm, has helped promote peace in South Sudan by sponsoring a new National Unity Day of sports events since 2016, the stage on which the delegation members starred en route to traveling to Japan.
The city of Maebashi has also decided to accept one athlete from South Sudan every six months in the run-up to the Paris Games in 2024 to maintain their developing ties with the African nation.
"You'll be like a new beginner again in that life in South Sudan, and it will be more difficult for us than the people who have always been there," Guem said of his eventual homecoming. "But we have lots of things that we've learned here that we'd really love to take back home."
"Seeing how people here greet each other and the respect they show each other, there's no way you're going to get a problem with anyone if that is the life among everyone in the community. If that prevails, it is going to be a very harmonious one."
Members of South Sudan's Tokyo Games delegation attend Japanese language class in Maebashi in April 2021. (Kyodo)
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