Tokyo 2020: South Sudan's Abraham Guem and his race for peace

Stranded in Japan for 21 months, Guem's chances at the Tokyo Olympics look slim. But he has more at stake than medals.

Published : Aug 02, 2021 17:05 IST

Abraham Majok Matek Guem has become accustomed to many new things. Heated toilets that drain automatically, tunnels that go through mountains, even the Japanese language is no longer foreign to him.

"There is only one thing I can't get used to: sushi," Guem told DW .

The middle-distance runner from South Sudan has been living in Japan for 21 months. He was only supposed to take part in a long training camp in the buildup to the Tokyo Olympics as part of an initiative by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Because of the one-year postponement of the Games due to COVID-19, Japan has almost become a second home for him.

Local support for South Sudanese team

"We never felt like foreigners here. People actually often greet us on the street and wish us luck," Guem explains. He refers to three other track and field athletes and a coach from South Sudan.

Guem said he has only begun speaking to his relatives back home recently and misses his family very much.

Many locals have opened their hearts to the stranded athletes, especially in Maebashi, an inland town about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Tokyo where the South Sudanese live. They have around €300,000 in donations so the African athletes can pursue their Olympic dreams.

"Our mission is still not accomplished. So far we haven't achieved anything," says Guem. "I'm doing this for my country, not for me. I want to bring peace to my country."

Running in school shoes

Guem, now 22, grew up in the chaos that was the South Sudanese Civil War, a conflict in which his step brother was killed. Nearly 400,000 people died from violence, hunger and disease.

South Sudan declared its independence in 2011 but is considered one of the poorest countries in the world. There are 3.8 million refugees in- and outside the country.

Guem ran his first race in his black school shoes. He later borrowed new shoes from his school and had to return them when he graduated so someone else could wear them. For training, Guem ran 17 kilometers through dry and rocky terrain to the capital Juban.

Growing up, he usually only had one small meal per day. But here in Japan, Guem and his team didn't have to worry about food. In Maebashi, they received three meals a day at the city's town hall. In the morning, they went to school to learn Japanese before training from noon onward.

Message of peace for South Sudan

In April, Guem ran his personal best time in the 1,500 meters — 3:42.99. The time wasn't good enough to qualify outright for the Summer Olympics, but Guem has been allowed to compete in Tokyo through a new rule that allows each nation to send one male and one female athlete — regardless of ranking — to the Games.

August 3 will be his big day — he is set to run the 1,500 meters at Tokyo's Olympic Stadium. His dream? An Olympic medal, of course, but something else is more important to him. He wants to make his countrymen proud with his Olympic run, give them hope and return home with a message:

"I come from a poor family. Without support from many people, especially here in Japan, I wouldn't have achieved all this," Guam says. "I learned how important it is to help each other and be there for each other — instead of killing each other."


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