MAEBASHI, Japan (Reuters) – Abraham Majok, a 1500m South Sudanese runner who is training for the Tokyo Olympics in Japan, wants to bring two things back to his war-torn country after the games: an Olympic medal and a message about the importance of peace.
Abraham Majok from South Sudan runs past Japanese volunteers during his training to prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, Japan, on February 4, 2020. REUTERS / Kim Kyung-Hoon
Majok and three other South Sudanese athletes have been training for the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in the central Japanese city of Maebashi, 100 km northwest of Tokyo, since November.
"The Olympics, as I understand it, are a game of peace, and it is because the world is at peace … I came here and saw the benefits of peace in other countries," Majok, 20, told Reuters ,
"So when I come back (to South Sudan) the message I will have is the importance of peace," he added. "It's the biggest message I'm going to tell my people."
South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, gained independence from Sudan in 2011 and got into a civil war two years later. The conflict has killed an estimated 400,000 people and displaced millions from their homes.
President Salva Kiir and former rebel leader Riek Machar signed a peace agreement in 2018, but are still struggling to form a unified government.
Majok said that the civil war did not affect his family “physically or directly,” but that everyone in the country was struggling with the high inflation caused by the conflict.
“Things became very expensive in the market and life became very difficult. Sometimes you can't afford to buy what you need in everyday life. In fact, everyone was affected, ”he said.
South Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world. The International Monetary Fund estimates that gross domestic product per capita in 2019 should have been $ 275.2 or less than 0.3 percent of Luxembourg's highest value.
There are hardly any suitable sports facilities, and basic equipment such as hurdles are difficult to obtain, said Majok and other athletes from South Sudan.
In addition to Majok, the team in South Sudan consists of the 400-meter hurdler Akoon Akoon; 100m sprinter Lucia Moris, the only woman in the group; Paralympic 100m sprinter Michael Machiek; and coach Joseph Omirok.
In order to improve the chances and to promote the much needed feeling for the national unity of South Sudan through sport, the city of Maebashi decided last year to organize the training camp of the athletes during the games.
The athletes train five days a week on a sports field or on the go with Japanese training colleagues and volunteer trainers. They also attend a Japanese-language course and occasionally attend the city's elementary and middle schools to meet up with students.
Last month, they even attended a traditional community event where they hammered steamed rice with giant mallets into rice cakes.
To cover the estimated 20 million yen ($ 182,116) required to meet athletes' expenses, the city collects donations, a group of citizens sells T-shirts, and residents volunteer to act as interpreters.
"A rural city like ours is worth contributing to the peace of a country," said Kazuhiko Kuwabara, head of the city government's sports department.
When asked which side he would support if a Japanese athlete competed with a rival from South Sudan at the Tokyo Games, he said, "I would cheer for both … well, maybe from South Sudan."
($ 1 = 109.8200 yen)
Additional reporting from Jack Tarrant. Cut by Gerry Doyle