MAEBASHI, Japan (Reuters) - Abraham Majok, a South Sudanese 1,500m runner training in Japan for the Tokyo Olympics, aims to bring back two things to his war-torn country after the Games: an Olympic medal and a message on the importance of peace.
Majok and three other South Sudanese athletes have been training in the central Japanese city of Maebashi, 100 km (62 miles) northwest of Tokyo, since November for this summer’s Olympics and Paralympics.
“The Olympics, according to my own understanding, is a game of peace, and it happens because the world is at peace ... I have come here and seen the advantages of peace in other countries,” Majok, 20, told Reuters.
“So, when I get back (to South Sudan), the message I will have is the importance of peace,” he added. “That is the biggest message I will say to my people.”
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but descended into a civil war two years later. The conflict has killed an estimated 400,000 people and forced millions from their homes.
President Salva Kiir and former rebel leader Riek Machar signed a peace deal in 2018 but are still struggling to form a united government.
Majok said that the civil war has not “physically or directly” affected his family, but that everyone in the country had struggled with high inflation brought about by the conflict.
“Things became very expensive in the market, and life became very hard ... Sometimes you cannot manage to afford and buy whatever you need in the daily life. So, it actually affected everybody,” he said.
South Sudan is one of the world’s poorest countries, with per-capita gross domestic product likely to have come to $275.2 in 2019, or less than 0.3 percent of that of top-ranked Luxembourg, according to International Monetary Fund estimates.
Proper athletic facilities hardly exist, and basic gear such as hurdles are hard to come by, Majok and other South Sudan athletes said.
Besides Majok, the South Sudan team is made up of 400m hurdles runner Akoon Akoon; 100m sprinter Lucia Moris, the group’s only woman; Paralympian 100m sprinter Michael Machiek; and coach Joseph Omirok.
In a bid to help them beat the odds and foster much-needed sense of South Sudanese national unity through sports, the city of Maebashi last year decided to host the athletes’ training camp through the Games.
The athletes have practice runs five days a week in an athletic field or on the road with Japanese training mates and volunteer coaches. They also attend a Japanese-language class, and occasionally visit the city’s elementary and junior high schools to meet students.
Last month, they even participated in a traditional community event, in which they pounded steamed rice with giant mallets into rice cakes.
To cover an estimated 20 million yen ($182,116) necessary to pay for the athletes’ expenses, the city is collecting donation, a citizen’s group is selling T-shirts, and residents are volunteering as interpreters.
“It is worth doing if a rural city like ours can help build peace of a country,” said Kazuhiko Kuwabara, head of the municipal government’s sport division.
Asked which side he would support if a Japanese athlete competes with a South Sudan rival at the Tokyo Games, he said, “I would cheer both ... well, maybe South Sudan.”
Additional reporting by Jack Tarrant. Editing by Gerry Doyle