TOKYO >> Several athletes from countries suffering from war and poverty are training in Japan in gymnastics, judo and other sports for the Tokyo Olympics, thanks to scholarships from the International Olympic Committee. Though they may wrestle with cultural differences, they have devoted themselves to their sports.
“Japan is safe, so I can sleep well and practice a lot,” said Yazan Al Souliman, a 19-year-old athlete from Syria training in gymnastics at Tokai University’s Shonan campus in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Damascus, the capital of Syria, has been mired in a prolonged civil war. Many of Al Souliman’s friends have been killed, and his training gym was bombed. From his home in the mountains, he would watch the area around the gymnasium every day, and if he heard gunshots, he didn’t go to practice.
Al Souliman, a leading Syrian gymnast, came to Japan in March 2018. While studying Japanese and culture at Tokai University, he spends six days a week practicing with other students.
He will be entered in several competitions this year, vying for his chance to compete in the Olympics.
“I will become Syria’s first Olympian in gymnastics,” he said.
The Olympic committee supports athletes and coaches from economically disadvantaged countries through its Olympic Solidarity Tokyo 2020 Special Program, which began in 2017 with financial assistance for participants’ education and living expenses. Japanese universities and high schools take part in the program.
The participants are leading athletes recommended by international federations. According to the Japanese Olympic Committee, 24 athletes from 17 countries are currently on long-term stays. Although they are not among the top athletes in the world rankings or world championships, many of them are hoping to participate in the Olympics under continental qualifications.
Damiella Nomenjanahary, 22, and Ellana Tessia Tsiorinirina, 20, both from Madagascar, began training at a judo club at International Budo University in Chiba Prefecture in spring 2018. Both got through their first matches at the World Championships in August.
The dojo training room in their home country was old, tatami mats worn out, and they had few to practice with. In Japan, about 20 high-level female members of the club have been involved in regular practice matches.
“I’ve gained the ability to think for myself about practices and points that should be improved,” Nomenjanahary said. “I want to continue judo in Japan after the Tokyo Olympics and bring Japanese techniques back to my country.”
Fijian Sally Yee, 18, attends Chinzei Gakuin High School, where she is a member of the strong women’s table tennis team, in Nagasaki Prefecture. The 2020 Games will be her second Olympics.
At the Rio Olympics, Yee said she was so nervous she doesn’t remember how she played when she was eliminated in her first match. She came to Japan in summer 2018 to train hard with strong players and acclimate to the country where the Olympics will be held.
“By living in Japan, I will be able to play as usual at the Olympics. I want to win one game at the Olympics for my friends who encourage me,” she said.