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Japan city extends South Sudan athletes' stay as Olympics postponed

Maebashi Mayor Ryu Yamamoto and South Sudan's athletic team members pose for a photo in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture on March 26, 2020. (Kyodo)

MAEBASHI, Japan (Kyodo) -- A city northwest of Tokyo that has been hosting South Sudan's athletic team for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will extend their stay until at least July, despite the games' postponement, its mayor said Thursday.

    The five-member track and field team from the war-ravaged country has been training in Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture, since November as the African country engulfed in an armed conflict since its independence from Sudan in 2011 has left difficult conditions for athletes, such as gravel grounds and lack of basic equipment.

    The Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee agreed Tuesday on the postponement of the Summer Games for roughly one year amid the global novel coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 20,000 and infected over 450,000 people.

    "We want to continue to support their training to prepare them for next year's competitions," Mayor Ryu Yamamoto told reporters at their training ground. The team is composed of three Olympic athletes, one Paralympic athlete and a coach.

    Whether to accommodate them beyond July will be decided after discussions with the South Sudan's Olympic Committee and other relevant organizations, Yamamoto added.

    The city provided them the training ground, living facilities and around 20 volunteer translators, with the costs covered by donations under the "hometown tax" program, which allows taxpayers to donate to their hometowns or other municipalities of their choice and receive tax cuts

    Yamamoto said in a statement that Maebashi has secured more than 14 million yen ($126,640) in such donations.

    The camp was set up with the help of the government-linked aid organization Japan International Cooperation Agency, which promotes peace through sports.

    Abraham Guem, a 1,500-meter runner on the team, said he is sorry the Olympics and Paralympics have been pushed back but that saving lives is more important. The 20-year-old added the postponement has given athletes more time to train and he expressed hope to stay in Maebashi longer.

    The civil war in South Sudan, which began in 2013, killed around 400,000 people. A peace agreement was signed in 2015 but the country is still experiencing the conflict's aftermath.

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