Olympics

Athletes and organizers hope to use Paralympics as catalyst for future

by Aaron Bauer

Contributing Writer

Next year Tokyo will become the first city to host the Summer Paralympic Games twice, an opportunity that para athletes and officials believe could be a catalyst toward long-term positive change for people with impairments in Japan.

In the weeks following the 2020 Olympics, the Paralympic Games will return to Tokyo for the first time since 1964. Then, only 19 countries sent delegations which totaled less than 400 athletes. In 2020, 4,400 athletes from over 150 countries will compete.

“[Our] aim is to create a vigorous, inclusive society by 2030, and conducting our business based on our own plans,” Tomohiro Ida, secretary general of the Japanese Paralympic Committee, told The Japan Times.

In addition to an increased budget following the election of Tokyo as a Paralympic host city, the JPC is working to leverage increased visibility for para athletes to “raise the rate of sports implementation,” Ida said.

Catapulting this has been the creation of an annual Japanese para-sport championship, which has been broadcast on YouTube in an effort to get more viewers to the fledgling national championships.

These efforts have “increased the recognition of para sports, and promoted understanding of people with impairment,” Ida said.

Meanwhile, the government portfolio overseeing para-sport has been transferred from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Ida says that cities around Japan have contacted the JPC for “advice and cooperation to enhance the attractiveness of para-sports” to follow Tokyo’s lead.

Not everything has gone according to plan, though. Tokyo has passed an updated barrier-free ordinance that will go into effect in September 2019. However, there is worry there will not be enough accessible hotel rooms for the games (bit.ly/TokyoWheelchair).

Despite this, an International Paralympic Committee spokesperson described overall preparations as “Fantastic!” in an email to The Japan Times. “The biggest change in benefitting para sport in Japan has been bringing all national federations under one roof at the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Centre, and getting spectators to realize para sport is filled with top quality athletes.

“The attitudes towards disability in Japan at the moment are somewhat behind some other countries and it would be wonderful if we could turn this on its head through Para sport,” the spokesperson added. “Once the Japanese public see Para athletes doing things they never thought imaginable, either by watching in-venue or via NHK’s unprecedented coverage, I am certain people will change their views. This transformation of attitudes will then create more opportunities for persons with disabilities in the future in Japan.”

Japan’s goal for the 2020 Paralympics is to finish seventh in the medal table, which would mark a return to the top 10 for the first time since Athens 2004. Japan won 53 medals at those games, its best performance at a Paralympic Games.

Winning medals is not the only goal, according to the JPC. Organizers are working to ensure that all 2.3 million tickets are sold, ensuring full stadiums for all competitions.

A Tokyo 2020 spokesperson told The Japan Times that the goal of the Paralympics is not only to leave a “hard legacy,” but a “soft legacy” as well. This fits in with the vision of other stakeholders to foster a more inclusive society, supporting those with impairments. Also, organizers believe the Paralympics can help grow “the promotion of universal design in sports facilities and living spaces, and encouraging people’s minds to become barrier-free through Paralympic education,” Takaya added.

In addition to seven test events featuring Paralympic sports, Tokyo 2020 is organizing public events to get average Tokyoites to try para sports in the “Let’s 55″ (pronounced go-go) program.

” ‘Let’s 55’ is a sports festival where athletes can showcase their individual sports and where the public, especially children, can try them out,” the spokesperson said.

As the last year of preparations take shape, para athletes across Japan are working to take advantage of the increased opportunities and funding to bolster their careers ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

For Keiichi Kimura, this meant extending his career to try and win a medal in front of a home crowd. He began his Paralympic career at the 2008 Beijing Games, before winning two medals in swimming at the London Paralympics.

Kimura, like many para athletes, is sponsored by a Japanese company as he pursues his training in the United States. Tokyo Gas has sponsored Kimura, which has allowed him to move to Baltimore, where he has studied English while training. Winning a Tokyo 2020 medal will not only help Kimura financially, it could help decide the next steps in his career.

“Our training situation has been getting better because many companies and universities are supporting us,” Kimura said. “Coaches who have taught to non-disabled athletes are teaching us. They bring great ideas and information as well.

“The 2020 (Paralympics) is the greatest chance to develop para sports in Japan. I believe that para sports would become more popular and more famous.”

Daisuke Ikezaki is one of the veteran players of the Japanese Wheelchair Rugby team. At 41 he began his career playing wheelchair basketball before switching to wheelchair rugby (www.paralympic.org/daisuke-ikezaki) Ikezaki and the Japanese team won a bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and won a world championship in 2018, setting themselves up for the 2020 Paralympics.

“What has changed during his career,” Ikezaki told The Japan Times, “is that there are dedicated para-sport gymnasiums around Tokyo now, and more companies are now financially supporting para sports and athletes.”

Since winning the world championship, support for the Japanese wheelchair rugby team has grown, and Ikezaki wants to win a medal to thank the Japanese people for the support they have shown the team on this journey.

“A foundation has been built on both the environmental and mental aspects to receive the Paralympic Games in their best condition (in Japan),” Ikezaki said. “As (the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics) is a once in a lifetime (event), I would like to have trained every day without regret.”