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South Sudan’s Olympians in love with Japanese language — as well as real track in Gunma

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THE JAPAN TIMES NEWS 16 FEB 2020

MAEBASHI, GUNMA PREF. – Four South Sudanese athletes are already in Japan training for the Olympics and Paralympics. They are trying to get a head start, and unlike most of the 11,000 athletes who will be in Tokyo for the games, and thousands more for the Paralympics, they will be able to speak Japanese.

“Just the language itself, I love it,” said Abraham Majok, a 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 northwest of Tokyo in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, supported mainly by donations from the public.

Majok, who competes in 1,500-meter events, is thinking of his country, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but descended into a civil war two years later. The war 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 official Kazuhiko Kuwabara has watched the four train in person. But the real thrill will come in about 5½ months when the Olympics open. “I think more important than their records is to see them running on the track 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 a 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. They are actually good people.”

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