Maebashi, Gunma Pref. – The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was a heavy blow for many athletes, but a team of South Sudanese sprinters training in a Japanese town are hoping to use the delay to their advantage.
Four South Sudanese athletes and a coach have been in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, since November, taking advantage of training facilities that aren't available in their young, but poor home country.
Following historic postponement of the Summer Games because of the coronavirus, they've decided to remain until at least July in order to continue honing their skills.
"The Tokyo Olympics (have been) postponed. It's not a problem," team coach Joseph Rensio Tobia Omirok, 59, said.
"I'm happy because I'm still training, and in other countries they have no training. They're sitting in their house but here we are OK. … Training now is going OK."
The decision to postpone the 2020 Games for a year came after athletes and sports associations from around the world pressured local organizers and Olympic officials, pointing to canceled qualifying events and restrictions on training brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Japan has so far avoided the sort of major outbreak seen in Europe and the United States, though a state of emergency was declared on Tuesday. That, however, only applies to certain part of the nation, and Gunma Prefecture is not among them.
Maebashi, a city of 340,000, has pledged to continue helping the young athletes by providing them with accommodation, meals and the use of a local public track, along with an army of volunteer coaches and translators.
Maebashi decided to host the team — the coach, one female and two male Olympic sprinters and one male Paralympic sprinter — as part of its efforts to promote peace through sports.
The athletes have visited local schools and participated in community events to talk about their homeland, which won independence in 2011 and has been battling to recover from a civil war.
They regularly practice with local children and have learned to speak simple Japanese.
The athletes say they have come to enjoy life in the city, where cherry blossoms are blooming after a bitter winter, despite being more than 10,000 km from home, where they practiced on empty fields instead of a track.
"Before I reached Japan, I didn't know what kind of people the Japanese are," said Abraham Majok Matet Guem, 20, who runs the 1,500 meters.
"The love I got here … is more than even what I expected. So I have not missed home so much because I am staying in a very peaceful environment with very loving people. So I was very surprised at that."
The city has raised more than ¥14 million ($128,000) from across Japan through a special taxation system and is continuing to raise funds to secure the ¥20 million needed to keep the team through July.
After the Olympic delay was announced in March, officials were quick to reassure the athletes they would be welcome to stay until at least July.
"We are eager to give them our continued support," said Shinichi Hagiwara, a sports official with the Maebashi Municipal Government.
After that, the athletes' fate will be decided when the city consults with South Sudan's Olympic authority, the Japanese government, the track team and others, Hagiwara said.
The athletes said their warm reception left them hoping they might one day be able to welcome their hosts to their home country.
"Right now, people are scared to go to South Sudan. But we believe in the near future, it will be a very peaceful country and everyone will be free to travel there," said Guem. "And we shall be happy to see people from Maebashi there also."
Guem left his mother and seven siblings at home in order to train in Japan and said the delay was no more than a minor bump in his Olympic journey.
"My dream is always, before I retire from athletics, I should become an Olympic medalist," he said.
"I will continue training and it is my hope to one day be a champion. I still have time."