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The Japanese city that's rooting for South Sudan at the Olympics

2021/06/02

The first time Abraham Majok Matet Guem competed in a track race, he ran in his black school shoes.

Guem -- now a 21-year-old Olympian representing South Sudan -- was so fast he quickly caught the eye of a coach, who bought him proper running shoes and sportswear.
"I used those for some years, and there was no way when that one got finished that I'd have any money to buy another one or get another pair of shoes," Guem told CNN's Blake Essig.
    But as a budding track athlete, his high school intervened -- giving him a scholarship and loaning him running shoes, which he gave back to the next student after he graduated.
      For aspiring South Sudanese athletes, training has always been a challenge. Many of them, said Guem, struggle to get one square meal a day and train on uneven rocky terrain.
      "I think around 60% of athletes do not have even a pair of shoes, so they run barefoot," he added.

      In 2011, South Sudan gained independence and became the world's youngest country. But civil war erupted two years later, killing an estimated 400,000 people and forcing millions from their homes to create Africa's biggest refugee crisis and the world's third-largest after Syria and Afghanistan.



      Despite the hardships, running kept Guem going. At the 2019 Africa Games held in Morocco, he broke South Sudan's national record for the 1,500 meters and was selected to become part of his country's Olympic team.
      Since November 2019, he and three other South Sudanese athletes and their coach have been living and training in the small Japanese city of Maebashi in Gunma prefecture -- around a two-hour drive from Tokyo.
      While many Japanese towns and cities that signed up to host Olympic teams have been forced to rethink their plans due to the ongoing pandemic, Maebashi is an exception.
      When the pandemic delayed the Games by one year, the city of 350,000 people raised almost $300,000 nationwide in taxes and donations like running shoes and athletic gear in December 2020 to ensure the Olympians and their coach could stay on in Maebashi -- and cement an Olympic legacy.




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