Undaunted by pandemic, South Sudan athletes in Japan fix eyes on the prize

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After the coronavirus forced a delay in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, athletes from South Sudan who are training in Japan seized the opportunity for more practice, which they have vowed to keep up, despite mounting uncertainty over this year’s event.

Four track athletes and a coach from South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, and one of its poorest, arrived in November 2019 in Maebashi, a city 100 km northwest of Tokyo, to exploit Japan’s better training conditions.

Forced to extend their stay after the summer games were postponed by a year, they find infections are still raging worldwide, cast a pall over the event’s new date of July 23.

“If that will be held, it’s OK, and that is all,” said Akoon Akoon, one of the athletes.

Instead of weighing the competing perspectives over the viability of the games, he preferred to get on with his training, he added.

“I don’t want to confuse my mind. I just focus on my training,” Akoon, 18, who will compete in the 400-metre race and the hurdles event over the same distance, told Reuters.

Last week, Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, reaffirmed its commitment to the Tokyo Games, which Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is determined to hold this summer.

But 86% of survey respondents wanted the Games postponed again or cancelled, a poll by the Asahi Shimbun daily showed last week.

Japan, with a tally of 390 687 infections and 5 766 deaths, had declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and 10 prefectures that sources say the government is expected to extend on Tuesday.

Abraham Majok, a 1 500-m runner, said Olympic participation was important for South Sudan, to foster a sense of national unity in a country ravaged by years of civil war.

“The image of the team here is a big sign of unity, because all of us are from different states,” said Majok, 21.

“When our people back home watch us all from different states working together…and representing the country at the world level, the people will really be happy.”

South Sudan erupted in civil war soon after winning independence from Sudan in 2011, leading to an estimated 400 000 deaths and one of the worst refugee crises on the continent since the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Implementation of a peace accord agreed in 2018 has mostly stalled, a UN expert panel said in December.

Maebashi, with a population of 335 000, has raised donations of 31 million yen ($296 197) nationwide to support the training camp for the South Sudanese athletes, enough to carry them through the rescheduled Games this summer.

Besides city officials, volunteer translators and Japanese coaches offer help at practice sessions on a windswept field five days a week.

“After watching them work so hard, I, of course, hope the Games will take place this year,” said city official Shinichi Hagiwara.

“Even if the Games get cancelled, there’s always 2024.”

The 2024 Games are to be held in Paris.