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 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.
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.
Guem said he and his team’s mission is to promote the importance of unity at home in South Sudan. The 1,500m runner said he sought to represent South Sudanese states other than his own at local and national competitions.
That thinking is in line with a South Sudanese sports festival dubbed “National Unity Day,” which has been co-organized by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a government agency supporting growth in other countries, and the South Sudan Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. In its fifth year, that event brings together young people from all over South Sudan.
“Sports is one unifying factor that is very necessary for a country like South Sudan,” he added. “When you have war, and you are always kept apart, you don’t come together. And I’m sure the guys went back with different mindsets about others.”