From South Sudan to Japan — and on to the Tokyo Olympics

From South Sudan to Japan -- and on to the Tokyo Olympics
In this Feb. 12, 2020, photo, Abraham Majok, center and other compatriot athletes of the South Sudan team participate in Japanese language lessons as their preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

MAEBASHI, Japan (AP) — Four South Sudanese athletes are already training in Japan for this year’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. They are trying to get a head start but, even so, they aren’t likely to win any medals.

Unlike most of the 11,000 athletes who will be in Tokyo for the Olympics, and thousands more for the Paralympics, they will be able to speak Japanese.

“Just the language itself, I love it,” said Abraham Majok, a 1,500-meter runner who arrived in Japan in November with three other South Sudanese athletes and a coach. “And it’s nice and since we started learning it. It’s not so difficult, and also not so easy. But, you know, we are moving well with it and we just love it.”

They are training about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Tokyo in the city of Maebashi, supported mainly by donations from the Japanese public.

Majok is training and thinking of his country, which 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.

“As you know, for every battle that you are going for, you always go to look for success and you don’t go to look for failures,” Majok said. “I have been having this dream to come for the Olympics and to compete and get something good for myself and for my country as well.”

Maebashi city official Kazuhiko Kuwabara has watched the four train in person. But the real thrill will come in about 5 1/2 months when the Olympics open.

“I think more important than their records is to see them running on the track (at the Tokyo Olympics) wearing their uniform with South Sudan’s national flag,” Kuwabara said. “We together with people of Maebashi would like to support them to achieve that.”

Akoon Akoon, a 400-meter hurdler, pointed out the distinct advantage of training in Maebashi. The city has a track.

“Before I go to the Olympics, I can get enough training here in Maebashi with the coaches and the track here,” he said, pausing. “Because there (South Sudan), we don’t have tracks.”

South Sudan coach Joseph Omirok wants to return home when the Olympics and Paralympics end, and he plans to take some of Japan back with him.

“I learned a lot,” he said. “I’m getting not only sport. I’m learning a lot; the language, how Japanese people are. The are actually good people.”

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