LONDON – The Japanese media have finally begun portraying athletes with disabilities as elite in their own right, rather than focusing on what they are unable to do, according to an American academic researching the subject.
Dennis Frost, associate professor at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, said newspapers and television in Japan have massively increased coverage of para-sports since winning the bid to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.
“I think stories about elite athletes are going to be what drives the narrative, especially in the national media coverage,” Frost said of the upcoming games in a recent telephone interview.
Frost’s research covers para-sports stories since the 1964 Games in Tokyo, when the second Paralympics were held, to the present day, measuring how coverage has changed in quantity and quality.
He said the media only really changed their approach when Japan hosted the Winter Games in Nagano in 1998. Before then, while there were occasional bursts of interest in the Paralympics, the athletes were otherwise almost completely ignored.
According to Frost, Tokyo’s decision in 1964 to host the Paralympics was surprising, given the lack of awareness in Japan of para-sports and doubts about the sporting prowess of disabled people.
He said, “Prior to 1960, coverage of disability sports was virtually nonexistent in Japan.
“Very few people knew about these events, and no Japanese athlete had ever participated in them. One Japanese had only been to an actual swimming pool one or two times before entering the competition,” Frost said during a speech he made in London.
The games were extensively covered in 1964, but interest waned soon after, and coverage of para-sports petered out to, at best, social welfare features, although stories did occasionally appear on the sports pages.
After decades of limited coverage, articles once again appeared in the run-up to the 1998 Games in Nagano, and since then para-sports have remained in the news and public eye.
Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Games has seen interest in the Paralympics and its athletes mushroom, with articles in national newspapers almost doubling between 2013 and 2014 alone, according to Frost.
Frost said that, along with the increase in coverage, the way the stories are being told has also changed significantly.
He explained that the organizers of the 1964 Paralympics were often medical professionals whose primary goal was to popularize sport as a means of rehabilitation, much like the original mission of Ludwig Guttmann, who directly influenced some of them. Guttmann founded the Paralympics’ forerunner, the Stoke Mandeville Games.
This “medicalized” approach, promoting the use of sports to overcome disabilities, continued to be dominant until the Nagano Games, which Frost highlights as a turning point.
“In 1998 there was still a lot of focus on rehabilitation. What is different now is reporters are aware para-athletes want to be treated as athletes,” he said.
“In 1964, people with disabilities were thought of as patients who were going to be stuck in hospitals for the rest of their lives.
“Now, NHK is broadcasting people in wheelchairs playing basketball. Clearly, they don’t have to be patients anymore.”
Disabled journalists also cover events now, and social media have created new ways for disabled athletes to communicate directly with fans and the public.
“I noticed at several events the people doing the interviewing were themselves in wheelchairs or had some other form of noticeable disability,” Frost said. “That is something completely new.”
The athletes have enjoyed far more opportunities to interact with the public than in 1964, when they only featured on the margins of the planning process and publicity materials.
As newspaper circulation continues to fall throughout Japan, Frost argues new media and television will become the key drivers of the way disabled athletes are perceived in the future.
As with coverage, funding continues to rise each year. According to the Nikkei business daily, the Japanese Para-Sports Association received ¥1.88 billion (about $17 million) in government and other aid in fiscal 2016 — about a sixfold increase over five years.
But a survey made public ahead of the games in Rio de Janeiro by the Paralympians Association of Japan suggested that despite an improvement in their sporting environments, Paralympic athletes continue to shoulder a heavy personal financial burden.