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Japan helps 5 South Sudanese runners keep their Olympic dreams alive

The young African nation of South Sudan is facing two growing challenges: the coronavirus pandemic and ethnic violence. The dual threats mean little time or investment is left for athletes looking to compete in the Olympics -- so Japan, the host of the now-postponed 2020 Games, offered to help. NewsHour producer Ali Rogin reports on how five runners are training to keep their Olympic dreams alive.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The young African nation of South Sudan is facing two growing challenges: the coronavirus pandemic and ethnic fighting that has long plagued the country.

    That has left little time and investment for athletes looking to compete in the Olympics. So, Japan, the host of the now postponed 2020 games, offered to help.

    "NewsHour" producer Ali Rogin reports on five unique runners.

  • Ali Rogin:

    For South Sudanese track star Abraham Majok, the road to Olympic glory was already long. COVID-19 made it longer.

  • Abraham Majok:

    The first night, when I heard that the Olympics were postponed, I was really worried.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Since November, Majok and five teammates have been living and training in the small city of Maebashi, Japan, 7,000 miles from home, where none of these world-class facilities is available

  • Abraham Majok:

    They don't have a single track in the whole country which is still facing the country as a big challenge. And then most of the athletes, including me myself, are from poor families.

  • Ali Rogin:

    South Sudan is the world's youngest country. In 2011, it declared independence from Sudan, following decades of fighting.

    But fighting among South Sudanese ethnic groups continued. Only in February did rival leaders agree to end six years of civil war. Majok dreamed of giving his divided nation a reason to unite.

    But in March, the International Olympic Committee postponed the Tokyo Games until next summer and possibly beyond. Majok worried his dream would disappear.

  • Abraham Majok:

    The whole night thinking I might have lost again this chance that I had come to fight for my dream.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But, in that fight, he has an ally, one of the world's oldest and richest countries. Japan's international development agency chose Majok and his teammates to train in Maebashi ahead of what was supposed to be the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

    The agency's goal is to unite the South Sudanese people through sports.

    Yoshifumi Yamanaka represents Japan's development agency. He said Maebashi's mayor offered to host from a sense of duty.

  • Yamanaka Yoshifumi (through translator):

    The mayor said that Japan is a country which, after World War II, succeeded in economic growth thanks to the support from the international community. And it is important for Japan to now return this favor by supporting the development of South Sudan.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Back in November, Japanese TV celebrated Majok's and his teammates' arrival, and they have become a beloved part of the community.

    Before the pandemic, they learned the traditional way to make mochi, a favorite Japanese dessert, took lessons in writing Japanese script, and visited local shrines.

    Kenichi Uchida is their translator in Maebashi.

  • Kenichi Uchida:

    We are getting close, and we become friends. So, one day, you know, I'd like to go there and meet them in person in South Sudan.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Before a citywide coronavirus shutdown, the athletes trained with local volunteers and runners. They spent their free time learning about Japanese culture and civics and about how the nation recovered from wartime.

  • Abraham Majok:

    What I have got to learn from the Japanese history is, there is nothing which is permanent. No condition is permanent, after that long suffering. And Japan has finally gained the peace. And they are one of the world's most peaceful countries at the moment also.

  • Ali Rogin:

    And it goes both ways. In this country now 75 years removed from war, Majok and his teammates visited with Japanese schoolchildren to share their stories.

  • Abraham Majok:

    Most of them ask us about South Sudan, and we always tell them, this is the world's youngest country, but it's still under very difficult situations right now. But that does not make us lose hope.

  • Ali Rogin:

    And now the Japanese have decided to preserve the team's Olympic hope. Maebashi officials extended their stay by raising money from taxes and revenues from new vending machines.

  • Abraham Majok:

    When we heard that we're going to train after that long, at least the worry was a bit reduced, because we believe we're going to train, and we may have the chance to reach Olympics here.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Majok and his teammates are staying at least through July. What happens after that depends on local officials and South Sudan's Olympic Committee.

    For now, the volunteers are keeping socially distant, and the athletes train in an otherwise empty gym. There are still moments when Majok misses home. But he remains focused on the reason he and his team embarked on this journey.

  • Abraham Majok:

    I'm for a mission, which, if I miss, I can't achieve it again.

    But the friends, when I get back, I will meet them again. The family, when I get back, I will see them again. So I have to focus on my goal first.

  • Ali Rogin:

    What does it mean for you to have the opportunity to represent South Sudan in the Olympics?

  • Abraham Majok:

    I feel very good to represent my country, because this is what I was always fighting for, and this is why I have been training all along. And it was my goal that I set, and I have to achieve it.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Whenever Majok achieves his goal, he will have the entire city of Maebashi cheering him on.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Ali Rogin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have got to be pulling for that South Sudanese team.

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