With her clumsy but emotional and breathtaking presentation at the IOC Session in Buenos Aires for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games bid in September 2013, Mami Sato became a household name in Japan.
Sato stepped to the podium to lead off Tokyo’s bid team, perhaps an unexpected role for a person not trained for giving speeches in English. In fact, she was told she would be the first person to speak to the IOC members just about 10 days before the significant event.
Sato said that the team had serious internal discussions about who should go first, because among the three candidate cities, Istanbul and Madrid being the others, Tokyo wasn’t necessarily believed to have been in a favorable situation for winning the bid.
“It was like we were lined up with the others or even we were a little behind,” Sato said in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo. “So we were like, maybe we should go with someone who’s more distinguished.”
The Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee made the right choice in selecting this lady, who has a charming personality but has endured so much in her life.
Many insisted afterward that Sato and Princess Takamado were Japan’s most impressive speakers during the final presentations at the IOC Session (although Princess Takamado wasn’t officially a presenter on the team but spoke at the podium to express her appreciation for the support the international community gave her country after the Great East Japan Earthquake).
While Princess Takamado, a University of Cambridge graduate, grabbed the attention with her perfect English speech, Sato captured the eyes and ears of the audience by telling her own story. At age 19, she was diagnosed with cancer on her right ankle while attending Waseda University. She later had the leg amputated.
Her hometown, Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, was struck by the March 11, 2011, disaster and she nearly lost her family, but sports helped her overcome those difficult times.
“I had a lot of jitters. My legs were shaking in our rehearsals,” Sato, now 32, said of her lead-off role in Argentina.
Asked if she had been given any lessons to polish her English before the IOC Session, Sato said she hadn’t, adding that she focused on speaking emotionally rather than elaborately.
“I wish I had been instructed to speak more fluently,” she said of her own English presentation with a laugh. “But I was told it’d be OK as long as I could deliver my message.”
Sato joked that she now gets noticed by “middle-aged ladies” in the streets. But the lone presentation of last fall didn’t necessarily alter her life completely, because contributing to Paralympic sports was something she’d done even before her experience in Argentina.
Of course, for the host nation, the Olympics and Paralympics can make a big difference in that country. So Sato appreciates having been a part of the team that secured the first Summer Games in Japan in half a century.
“It’s absolutely positive that a greater volume of messages (on Paralympic sports) will be conveyed now,” said Sato, who was on the cheerleading team at Waseda. “This will bring so much awareness to so many people.”
Yet with the bidding mission complete, Sato has not been relieved of her responsibilities for Paralympic sports. While she is an employee of Suntory Holdings Ltd. and a top Paralympic long jumper (she held the national record of 5.02 meters until Maya Nakanishi broke it last month), she remains a Paralympic sports ambassador and will be a voice toward the 2020 global sports extravaganza, and beyond.
Working at Suntory’s corporate social responsibility department, she has been a part of the major drink company’s developmental activities for future generations, helping run sports events and workshops.
Suntory has engaged more in supporting the recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake with the “Suntory Tohoku Sunsun Project” since last year, and Sato has actively been involved as an iconic speaker.
Suntory also added another project this year to support the challenged sports athletes and the promotion of the sports as a part of the Sunsun Project. For the project, the company established a fund to develop the challenged sports, such as providing equipment and subsidies to individuals and groups. It also dispatches athletes, including Sato, to the region’s schools to help introduce sports to children, handicapped or non-handicapped.
“I want to share the idea of living positively through Paralympic sports with as many people as possible,” Sato said. “And as far as the recovery (from the disaster), it’s important to become forward-looking as well, and we want to hold hands with (the victims) through this field.”
Sato claimed that bringing the Olympics and Paralympics to Tokyo is just the beginning and hopes the entire country can develop a society that better copes with handicapped people and elders by taking advantage of the global sporting extravaganza in Japan’s capital.
“What’s going to be more important will be the awareness of the people,” Sato said. “For example, if you go to Britain, you’ll get to see a variety of people; there are the Asians, white people, African American people and people from the Middle East. And that’s a normal circumstance over there.
“In Japan, we spend our daily life with the Japanese people, speaking in Japanese, and once you see something different, you see it extraordinarily. I would like to connect them with sports. I think that if people see just a single event of the Paralympics even for once, they’ll change their perceptions.
“Sports is a good introduction to make a lot of people understand (the life of the physically disabled). I think that in terms of the welfare, it’s probably faster to raise the awareness through sports, rather than appealing like, ‘Let’s change the towns, let’s make things more accessible to anyone.’ ”
For athletes in Japan, boundaries between mainstream sports and Paralympic sports are being lowered these days, and Sato expected that the Tokyo Games will accelerate that process.
For instance, Paralympic athletes, who are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, had not been able to use the Ajinomoto National Training Center in the capital city until recently. The facility was designated for Olympic sports, which fall under the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s control. But this has slightly changed, and the doors have been open to Paralympians in some events, including track and field.
“In countries like Britain, the Netherlands and Australia, their athletes train under the same environments, both Olympians and Paralympians,” Sato said. “Otherwise, I think that (the Paralympians) will be left behind.”
Though she was once in a deep despair and found life worth living through sports — as she expressed in her I-was-saved-by-sport presentation at the IOC Session — Sato is more suited than anyone as a perfect preacher for the work she and Suntory are doing.
“Right now, I feel it’s great to be living,” Sato said. “I’ve regretted what happened to me before and felt why it had to happen to me. But I think I’ve experienced more joy and excitement. I really feel like I’ve been given a lot more things than what I’ve lost.”
A three-time Paralympian, Sato, who earned the bronze medal at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships in France, still goes through rigorous training like a top Paralympian. Even though she got married last month, she has no intention of quitting her commitment to play sports, if not at the Paralympic level.
Many may wonder if Sato is going to compete at the 2020 Paralympics. But on that question, while maintaining her attractive smile, she did not offer a clear response, because she doesn’t have a clue as to what the future holds.
“I really don’t know about that at all,” said Sato, who’s competed in three Para-Triathlons in the last few years. “I’m not going to deny it, but I can’t say whether I’ll be in that situation.
“But (the Paralympics) will be held in Tokyo in 2020, and if I have a little chance to make it, I may want to challenge it. It’s an event that’s held only once every four years, plus it’s at home. It’s just too great to miss.”
Xavier Gonzalez, the CEO of the International Paralympic Committee, insisted that he wants Paralympians to stay involved in the Paralympic Movement when they retire, because they have so much to offer and such vast knowledge.
Gonzalez expects Sato to do the same even if she decides to not compete in the Paralympics any more.
“Mami is a great ambassador for the Movement, who isn’t just known in Japan, but as a result of last September, all around the world,” Gonzalez said. “She is a great public speaker who can do so much to benefit the Paralympic Movement and Tokyo 2020.”
Sato said that among the three Paralympics she’s competed in, the 2012 London Games was the most impressive and is an exemplar because it simply felt like another sporting event, in which the participants were able to act like athletes and treated like athletes.
“But I don’t think they made it that way overnight in Britain,” she said. “I heard they used the entire six years, going back to when they earned the right to host it, promoting media coverage and getting sponsors from companies. It paid off.”
And there’s no doubt for the Tokyo Games, Sato will have a key role. Gonzalez wants Sato’s efforts to shed light on other Paralympians, such as wheelchair tennis champions Shingo Kunieda and Yui Kamiji, by the time the 2020 Games arrives.
“(Sato’s) presence and her story have helped raise the profile of Paralympic sport(s) in Japan, which is fantastic,” Gonzalez said. “I hope that between now and Tokyo 2020, however, the profile of many other Japanese Paralympians increases in size and scale. I hope by the time of the Games, Mami is not the only Paralympian that is a household name in Japan.”
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