• Kyodo

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With little luck attracting funding and new players to the sport, Japan’s Paralympic ice hockey team has been busy dealing with challenges outside the arena even as the Pyeongchang 2018 Games creep ever closer.

Successful efforts to improve the recognition of paralympic sports ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games have led to increased sponsorship deals, but March’s Winter Paralympics have yet to move out of the shadow of its summer counterpart.

The men’s hockey team will be making its first Paralympics appearance since 2010, but Masaharu Kumagai, who plays for the Nagano Thunderbirds, says that in reality, the players are just struggling to survive.

“To be honest our situation hasn’t changed. I envy the athletes, like those in wheelchair tennis, who get to be on television,” said Kumagai, 42, who scored a team-high four goals during the qualifiers in October.

In the Paralympic version of ice hockey, which uses dual-blade sledges that allow the puck to pass beneath, Japan earned a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games in British Columbia.

But the athletes were forced out of the spotlight quickly, and fundraisers and crowdfunding were conducted online to deal with problems in the operating budget and to make ends meet.

In the meantime, the sport continues to have difficulty attracting younger athletes. The average age of the current team, which includes a player who has been forced to come out of retirement, is past 40, and its oldest player is 60.

Kuniko Obinata, who will head the paralympic delegation in South Korea, stressed that it is important for the Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics to succeed because it will be a pivotal factor in the success of the Tokyo Summer Paralympics.

“People have fewer opportunities to watch winter sports (than summer sports). Before we start thinking about Tokyo, it’s important that we put our very best efforts into Pyeongchang,” she said.

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