Expanding sports for the disabled

There are five years to go before Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Paralympic Games. It is hoped that the international sports event will help increase public interest in the activities of disabled athletes. Japan has set a target of coming in seventh or higher in the 2020 games in terms of the number of gold medals. But that should not be considered the primary goal for Japan’s Paralympics movement. More important is that sports for disabled people will spread as a part of everyday life in this country.

Disabled athletes face obstacles in their activities in Japan. The public and private sectors need to make serious efforts to remove them. They are confronted with a shortage of sports facilities, volunteers to support them and coaches willing to guide their training. It is hoped that as the Tokyo Paralympics draws near, these problems will be resolved one by one until the general situation surrounding disabled athletes will have greatly improved by the time the 2020 games are held.

Fitness clubs are flourishing across Japan, attracting health-conscious citizens including middle-aged and senior citizens. However, many of these clubs do not provide facilities for disabled people to enjoy sports and very few of them are barrier-free. In fact, large numbers of fitness club operators refuse to accept disabled people on the grounds that they are not prepared to cope with possible accidents involving them.

Participants in wheelchair tennis and field and track events can train in the same facilities as used by able-bodied athletes. But the choice for disabled athletes for sports such as swimming is very limited. In most cases, they have no other choice but to use public sports centers dedicated to disabled people. Swimming is one of the easiest sports for disabled people to enjoy because buoyancy makes it easier for them to move. But even if they want to join fitness clubs or swimming clubs, many facilities are not prepared to accept them. This is the social climate in Japan surrounding disabled athletes.

Compared with privately-run fitness clubs, the number of sports centers for disabled people is very small. In most communities, venues for sports played by disabled people are separated from those for able-bodied athletes. Disabled athletes are often forced to travel long to access the venues they can use for training, making it hard for them to secure enough time and frequency for training.

In many other countries, sports events that were once limited to able-bodied athletes have increasingly been made open to disabled athletes with the creation of special categories for such participants. Training facilities are also being made available for disabled athletes. This is the kind of global standard that Japan should aim for. Two years ago, Japan Para-Swimming Federation, Japan Swimming Federation for Persons with an Intellectual Disability and Japan Deaf Swimming Association jointly formed an association of disabled swimmers and joined the Japan Swimming Federation, which used to be dedicated to able-bodied swimmers. This kind of move, which tears down the wall between able-bodied and disabled athletes, should spread to other sports.

Ideally, facilities where disabled people can play sports should greatly increase in number and volunteers in communities should be able to support these athletes without experiencing psychological barriers. Businesses, local governments and citizens should make efforts to create an environment in which disabled people can enjoy sports easily. That’s the environment that Japan should be aiming for as it prepares to host the 2020 games.