National | New Year's Special

Paralympians hope to bring event out of Olympic shadow with Tokyo Games

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Sprinter Shunsuke Itani is young, tall, handsome and a contender to win a medal on the track in Tokyo this summer.

But he is far from a household name in his native Japan.

Having had his right leg amputated below the knee following a motorbike crash in February 2016, Itani is hoping to represent his country this summer at the Paralympics, not the Olympics.

The 24-year-old is as good a poster boy as Paralympic organizers could hope to find before the Aug. 25-Sept. 6 games begin. But with the Olympics dominating the media spotlight in the buildup to this summer’s sports extravaganza, Itani and his fellow Paralympians are struggling to escape from its shadow.

“As far as I can see, it’s just friends, family and neighbors who are excited about it at the moment,” Itani said, after working out at a track in Tokyo’s Toyosu waterfront district in December. “You go out and you see adverts for the Paralympics and posters of para-athletes and so on, but I don’t know how many people see them and think they want to go and watch. Or how many Paralympic track athletes people have heard of. I think the number is fairly low, and if it stays like that I think it’s going to be pretty bad.”

Sprinter Shunsuke Itani trains at Shin-toyosu Brillia Running Stadium in Tokyo’s Toyosu neighborhood in December.  | CHISATO TANAKA
Sprinter Shunsuke Itani trains at Shin-Toyosu Brillia Running Stadium in Tokyo’s Toyosu neighborhood in December.  | CHISATO TANAKA

Tokyo 2020 chiefs are grappling with a problem that has challenged organizers ever since 1988, when the Olympic and Paralympic Games were first held in succession at the same venues — namely, how to sustain public interest once the Olympics have finished and the Paralympics have begun two weeks later.

Tokyo 2020 organizers and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) are certainly trying. For the first time, sponsoring companies have been required to buy advertising rights to both the Olympics and Paralympics rather than just one, and those companies have also been asked to feature Paralympians just as prominently as Olympians in their ad campaigns.

The Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which was founded in May 2015, has produced a series of glossy magazines featuring fashion shoots with paralympic athletes taken by noted photographer Mika Ninagawa. Broadcaster WOWOW is airing a series of documentaries focusing on para-athletes from around the world.

Yasushi Yamawaki, vice president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, believes the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics can change Japanese society. | CHISATO TANAKA
Yasushi Yamawaki, vice president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, believes the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics can change Japanese society. | CHISATO TANAKA

Tokyo 2020 Vice President Yasushi Yamawaki, also a governing board member of the IPC and the chairman of the Nippon Foundation Support Center, says he would like Japan to follow the example of British broadcaster Channel 4, which launched its coverage of the 2012 London Paralympics following a hugely successful Olympics with the campaign message “thanks for the warm-up.”

Evidence suggests Tokyo’s approach is working. Organizers received 3.1 million applications for Paralympic tickets in the first lottery phase held last year — around three times the demand for tickets a year before the start of London 2012. Around 600,000 tickets were sold in Tokyo’s first lottery, and a second one is scheduled for Jan. 15-29.

Yamawaki, however, is aware that Tokyo 2020 organizers still have plenty of work to do to sell the Paralympics to the public.

“There was a lot of demand for some events, such as the opening and closing ceremonies, medal events, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby,” he said. “The applications were concentrated on the popular events, and we still have some available tickets. We’d like people to buy tickets and enjoy the events.”

Wheelchair tennis player Shingo Kunieda is one of Japan’s best-known para athletes. | KYODO
Wheelchair tennis player Shingo Kunieda is one of Japan’s best-known para athletes. | KYODO

That should hardly come as a surprise, given that interest in para-sports is still relatively low in Japan and only a handful of Paralympic athletes are widely recognizable to the public. Wheelchair tennis players Shingo Kunieda and Yui Kamiji and wheelchair rugby player Daisuke Ikezaki are probably the country’s best-known para-athletes, but most people know them by their faces, not their names.

Can Tokyo 2020 turn the nation’s Paralympians into genuine stars? Backstories like Itani’s certainly have the potential to captivate and inspire new fans.

Raised in Mie Prefecture, he dreamed of becoming a race car driver until a head-on collision with a car while riding his motorbike left him hospitalized with a shattered leg. A few days later, doctors amputated it just below the knee.

Sprinter Shunsuke Itani took up running after his right leg was amputated below the knee following a motorbike crash. | CHISATO TANAKA
Sprinter Shunsuke Itani took up running after his right leg was amputated below the knee following a motorbike crash. | CHISATO TANAKA

Itani says he struggled to come to terms with the accident in the immediate aftermath but quickly put it behind him and tried to adjust to his new life. He met with members of a running community for people with artificial legs, was instantly hooked and took it up as a regular hobby.

“When I first started running, just the act of running was enough to put a smile on my face,” he said. “I felt the power of sports. My leg had been amputated and I suddenly found myself classified as a disabled person. When I left the hospital and rejoined society, I could sense that people were a little distant toward me and it really hit home that I was disabled.

“I thought I wouldn’t be able to do sports freely, but when I started running it made me feel much more positive. My mom was also really down about what had happened to me, but when I started running it cheered her up a lot. Para-sports helped put a smile back on not just my face but my family’s as well.”

Boccia, in which players throw large stones at a small target, is one of two sports that does not have an Olympic counterpart. | KYODO
Boccia, in which players throw large stones at a small target, is one of two sports that does not have an Olympic counterpart. | KYODO

Itani began competing in the 100 and 200 meters and the 4×100-meter relay in 2018, and won the 100-meter title in the T44/62/64 category at the Asian Para Games in Jakarta later the same year. In November last year, he finished seventh in the 200 meters and eighth in the 100 meters at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Itani’s personal best in the T64 100 meters is 11.47 seconds. The world record, set by American Richard Browne in 1991, stands at 10.61. Itani believes people who have never seen para-sports before will be shocked by the high level of competition at the Paralympics.

“Most people have an image of wheelchairs being slow and cumbersome, or that artificial legs are painful and make you walk slowly,” he said. “But when you watch the Paralympics, you see the athletes running fast and you’re surprised by how fast the wheelchairs go. It’s much more than people imagine Paralympic athletes to be capable of.”

Yujiro Seto (top) competes in the men's 66-kg class judo for the visually impaired in a national competition in Tokyo in December. | KYODO
Yujiro Seto (top) competes in the men’s 66-kg class judo for the visually impaired in a national competition in Tokyo in December. | KYODO

Most para-athletes are amateurs who train in their spare time, but Itani is one of an elite group of 17 employed full-time by banking giant SMBC Group. The SMBC athletes have no work responsibilities and are free to concentrate on training for competitions. Itani says he trains for around three hours a day, five days a week.

Itani and fellow para-track athlete Maya Nakanishi also signed sponsorship deals with Icelandic artificial limb manufacturer Ossur last year. A prosthetic running blade like the one Itani uses costs around ¥1.6 million.

Japan is hoping the fact that some athletes are now able to train full time pays off at the Tokyo Paralympics, and the Japanese Paralympic Committee has set a target of winning 22 gold medals, despite not getting any in Rio four years ago.

But it is not just in arenas and stadiums where Japan is looking to make an impact.

“I would like the Tokyo Paralympics to be a turning point for the way Japanese people think about people with disabilities,” said Makoto Hirose, a retired para-judoka who competed in four Paralympic Games, winning silver in both 2004 and 2016.

Daisuke Ikezaki clashes with an Australian player during a men’s wheelchair rugby game in Tokyo in October. Wheelchair rugby is one of the most popular para-sports. | KYODO
Daisuke Ikezaki clashes with an Australian player during a men’s wheelchair rugby game in Tokyo in October. Wheelchair rugby is one of the most popular para-sports. | KYODO

“A lot of people think that people with disabilities need to be helped all the time, but it’s not like that. It’s about everyone living together, and I’d like people to realize that we’re all humans, all the same. I’d like people to watch the Paralympics and think about how we can live together in society, so that when the 2020 Games are over, it doesn’t just end there.”

Yamawaki says the organizing committee’s aim is to help build a more inclusive society through the Paralympics, and cites the IPC-developed education program I’mPOSSIBLE, which has been distributed for free to 36,000 elementary schools, junior high schools, high schools and special-needs schools around Japan, as an example.

He describes this as one of the “soft” legacies that the games can leave behind, to go with the “hard” legacy of improved infrastructure and greater barrier-free access around Tokyo.

Yamawaki admits that the number of accessible hotel rooms in Japan still leaves a lot to be desired, but he believes Tokyo’s facilities compare favorably with any previous host city, including London, which he describes as the benchmark.

With less than seven months to go, Yamawaki also concedes there is still a “mountain” of tasks left to accomplish, but he is confident that when the Paralympics finally begin, the two weeks of competition will change Japan forever.

Goalball, played by athletes with visual impairments using a ball with bells inside, is one of two sports that does not have an Olympic counterpart. | KYODO
Goalball, played by athletes with visual impairments using a ball with bells inside, is one of two sports that does not have an Olympic counterpart. | KYODO

“I was involved in a completely unrelated business when I volunteered at the London Paralympics,” he said. “That was the first time I had ever seen the Paralympics, and I thought it was really something. It wasn’t about people showing their disabilities — it was about what humans can achieve, about showing their ability.

“There have been a lot of competitions in Japan since then, and when people watch them, they feel the same way I did. When you meet para-athletes and hear their stories and watch them in action, people who didn’t previously know anything about it realize, learn and become more aware. It has a very big impact. A lot of people will watch these Paralympics, and through that I think society will start to change.”