For amputee sprinter Hitomi Onishi, winning races and setting records provides a thrill, but greater satisfaction comes from simply running alongside a full complement of competitors with disabilities.
Onishi, 37, competes in the T42 class for athletes with above-knee amputation and holds a 100-meter national record of 17.41 seconds. As the use of an artificial knee makes running extremely difficult, few people ran in the class when Onishi began competing 10 years ago. But she has been working to increase sporting participation among amputees.
At a track meet in July in the Kanto region, Onishi was delighted to see five other athletes competing in the T42 100-meter dash, which she won.
In 2000, Onishi was hospitalized for heart muscle inflammation and her right leg necrotized after a failed catheter-infusion treatment. She accepted her doctor’s decision to amputate the leg.
The first prosthetic leg Onishi received was not a great match. She later met Fumio Usui, 58, a prosthetics expert who founded a track and field club for amputees, Health Angels, in 1991.
When Onishi saw a female club member without a leg below the hip joint run at a training session in 2001, she was surprised but decided to give it a try. “I wouldn’t be what I am without the encounter” with Usui, she said.
Usui recommended that Onishi become economically independent if she wanted to continue the sport because of the cost of participating in athletic meets. She enrolled in a vocational school for people with physical disabilities and landed a position at the Meguro Ward Office in Tokyo in 2003 after graduation.
Two years ago, Onishi also began working as a hostess on the “Baribara” variety show for people with disabilities aired on Friday evenings by NHK’s online TV channel. She exposes her artificial leg during the program because “I want to be as I am,” she said.
“People fear amputation because they don’t know it,” she added. “They should feel at ease if they see me. I want to demonstrate that there are lots of things people can do even with artificial legs.”
Onishi was chosen as a reserve for the London Paralympics in 2012 but did not compete. While there, she was surprised that the stadium was filled with spectators who seemed to regard the competitors as they would athletes without disabilities.
In 2013, Onishi was invited to the well-known Golden Gala competition in Rome where Olympic champion and world record holder Usain Bolt of Jamaica competed in the 100-meter dash. The women’s T42 race was on the program because an Italian was the world champion, and Onishi, like other competitors, was surrounded by children seeking her autograph after the competition.
Spectators drew no distinction between athletes with and without disabilities, which was an experience “unthinkable in Japan,” Onishi said.
She has set her sights on running in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. While Tokyo will host the Paralympics in 2020, Onishi admits to having doubts about the suitability of Tokyo as a venue, due to differences in attitudes toward athletes with disabilities between Europe and Japan.
Although public financial support is available for purchasing artificial legs for daily use, athletes need to find the money on their own to buy the type needed for competition. Prosthetic legs for athletes with an above-knee amputation cost ¥500,000 to ¥600,000.
In addition, there are acute shortages of suitable coaches, practice facilities and medical support.
Japan, in Onishi’s estimation, has yet to become a place where amputees as well as people with other physical disabilities can readily enjoy sports.
A survey of Paralympians found they pay more than ¥1.4 million out of pocket on average to cover their athletic activities.
The Tokyo Paralympics in 2020 will be a golden opportunity to address financial and other problems for athletes with physical disabilities and encourage greater participation.
“We will have no future unless we take advantage of this chance,” Onishi said.