Long-jumper Sayaka Murakami isn’t just hoping to earn a medal at the postponed Tokyo Paralympics, but also lasting acceptance in a society where disabled people can feel pressured to stay out of the public eye.

Like many para athletes in Japan, Murakami believes the games are a unique chance to fight discrimination and change the way Japan treats people with disabilities.

“It’s a window of opportunity,” the 37-year-old told AFP during a training session in Chiba.

“I hope that the Paralympics will be a chance for people to realize that people (with disabilities) live among them” and are part of society, she added.

The decision to delay the Paralympics, now set to open in August 2021, following the rescheduled Olympics, was devastating at first, said Murakami, who lost her right leg in a train accident when she was 25 and competes with a prosthetic blade.

“I’d worked so hard, and was planning to retire after the 2020 Paralympics … I felt so down and I couldn’t get back to being positive,” she said.

But gradually, she said, she felt her motivation return, and she decided to resume training with the goal of qualifying for the postponed Paralympics.

“If I can win a ticket, I will do my best to jump for a medal,” she said.

Tokyo has worked to improve access for people with impairments and also promote Paralympic sports ahead of the games, but activists and experts warn there is a long way to go.

Even Japanese citizens feel their society has room for improvement with 84% of the respondents in a 2017 government survey saying they believe there is discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.

Sayaka Murakami competes in the long jump during the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai on Nov. 12, 2019. | REUTERS
Sayaka Murakami competes in the long jump during the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai on Nov. 12, 2019. | REUTERS

“Japan has not so far been used to accepting diversity,” said Motoaki Fujita, a professor of sports sociology at Nihon Fukushi University.

“In Japan, the way people are evaluated often depends on whether they are seen as being productive or producing economic value,” he told AFP.

There have been improvements since Tokyo won the bid to host the games, he said, but those could be undone.

“The results will be totally different if the games are canceled.”

In the runup to the Paralympics, there have been efforts to increase the visibility of people with impairments — with broadcasters hiring reporters with impairments, and events such as a fashion show featuring models, some who are also athletes, with prosthetic limbs.

Kaeda Maegawa, who competes in the 100-meter sprint and long jump, was among those participating in the fashion show and walked down the runway in a lacy white skirt that showcased her metal prosthetic.

She said she could understand some people are reluctant to reveal their impairment, and worry about being seen as a burden in Japan.

“But personally, I don’t feel that I want to hide my prosthetic leg … I want to send a message that prosthetic legs are cool,” the 22-year-old said.

She is hoping to score a medal at next year’s games, but also sees the opportunity to achieve something even bigger.

“Since the Tokyo Paralympics was awarded, media coverage of para athletes has increased, and because of that more and more people are becoming aware,” she said.

“If you want to change something, knowledge is what’s most important.”

Despite the hopes pinned on the games, there are still plenty of unresolved questions about how the event will be staged, with complex discussions on coronavirus countermeasures currently under way.

The virus issue is particularly serious for some Paralympians, including Tomoya Ito, a two-time Paralympic wheelchair medalist in 400 and 800 meters, who suffers from an immune disorder.

“For me, there is no way to live with it (the virus),” he warned in a recent interview with local media.

Murakami, whose husband is a bobsledder aiming for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, remains hopeful Tokyo can pull off the event next year and build a positive legacy for people with impairments.

“The space for disabled people has been gradually expanding in Japan,” she said.

“I really hope this won’t just be a one-time boom but something that continues to grow.”

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