The decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics didn’t come as a surprise to para track and field athlete Atsushi Yamamoto or blind soccer player Ryo Kawamura.
As the new coronavirus spread across the world at the start of the year, both men were already anticipating that the games were unlikely to go on as scheduled, with their own activities having already suffered major disruptions.
“I was told that an international tournament in Dubai where I was going to compete had been canceled while I was traveling there,” Yamamoto told The Japan Times in an online interview last month. “Having already gone through something like that before the games were postponed and looking at the situation, I thought we just had to accept it.”
Likewise, a training camp for Kawamura’s national team had been postponed as the disease began to spread. Japan’s blind soccer team will make its Paralympic debut at Tokyo, so the 31-year-old saw the postponement as an extra year of preparations to achieve the team’s target of a gold medal.
“With the extra time we can raise our level even more to mount a stronger challenge at the games, and I’m thrilled about it,” said Kawamura, who suffered inflammation in his eyes at 5 years old and was diagnosed as having completely lost his vision in 2013. “We’ve hoped to use the extended period of time effectively.”
While Yamamoto and Kawamura both overcame the postponement psychologically, they — like virtually every other athlete — have struggled to train during the pandemic. Kawamura in particular was unable to get together with his fellow national team players or his club team, Papelecial Shinagawa.
As an individual-sport athlete, Yamamoto hasn’t had to worry as much about COVID-19 infections through close contact. But the 38-year-old had more practical concerns, with facilities at his training base, Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences in Kumatori, Osaka Prefecture, locked down due to COVID-19’s rapid spread during the spring.
“I was using different facilities that were available. We practiced at different places every time,” Yamamoto said. “We searched for facilities that could be available the following day and made phone calls.
“I train with two others and we’d say, ‘we can probably use here tomorrow,’ while looking at Google Maps.”
The pandemic and Paralympic postponement have delivered blows to federations, organizers and administrators as well.
Japan Para Athletics became the country’s first national para-sport federation to host an event after the state of emergency was lifted at the end of May when it held the national championship on Sept. 5-6 in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture.
While many of the organization’s directors were initially reluctant to hold the event out of concern for the coronavirus, it decided to go ahead — while preparing thorough countermeasures against infections — after appeals from its athletes.
“We have our own athletes committee and they told us they wanted to compete,” Japan Para Athletics President Akemi Masuda said. “And I told our directors that we want to be an organization that has our athletes’ backs. If that’s what they’re telling us to do, we’ve got to do it.”
Conventional wisdom suggests that when it comes to sports, there’s no better practice than actual competition. That’s especially been the case this last year as athletes have had to train and practice under heavy restrictions.
For athletes who thrive under the spotlight such as Yamamoto, a men’s T63 class long jumper who has competed at three straight Paralympics since Beijing 2008 and won a pair of silver medals, the long period without meets last season was especially difficult.
In an effort to avoid making the national championships his return to competition, Yamamoto sought permission to use August’s collegiate meet in Tokyo as a tone-up. He expressed his gratitude to JPA for scheduling the national championships early, allowing him to set his training timetable more easily.
“I was really grateful for that because you practice toward a certain goal as an athlete,” said Yamamoto, who also captured bronze in the men’s 4×100 relay at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. “You do have your own training schedule, but when you don’t have a (competition) goal, you can’t really set it. That’s where I felt we’ve had difficulties this year.”
Blind soccer administrators have had their work cut out for them in terms of tournament planning, especially considering the contact-heavy nature of the sport which features two teams of four vision-impaired field players and a sighted goalkeeper each. Verbal communication features heavily in blind soccer, with blindfolded field players shouting “voy” (“go” in Spanish) as they approach the ball and team guides providing instructions from the sidelines and behind each goal — increasing the risk of virus-carrying droplets.
While accounting and consulting company KPMG Japan and Axa Life Insurance traditionally sponsor their own blind soccer tournaments — the international KPMG Cup and the Axa Brave Cup national club championships, respectively — the Japan Blind Football Association took elements from both to create the 2020 Cup, a cosponsored event that has held regional preliminary rounds across the nation since October in order to reduce the risk of infections and give players and teams the opportunity to compete.
The semifinal round will take place on Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, with the final and third-place matches scheduled for Feb. 29 in Kawasaki.
“If we tried to host the tournament just in October or November, we might have to call it off if a state of emergency was issued again or the government asked us to refrain from hosting an event,” said Daisuke Miyajima, a tournament operations manager for the JBFA. “So we came up with a format that takes place over a longer period of time, giving us room to make up games that could not be held as scheduled if something happens.”
While the JBFA and Yamamoto said that they were able to minimize financial damage from the pandemic by retaining their sponsors, Masuda said that a pair of JPA sponsorships are set to expire in March and that the federation would have to negotiate continued support until the Paralympics.
Masuda, who represented Japan in the women’s marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, has not hesitated to take advantage of her fame as a former athlete and commentator to act as JPA’s “salesperson,” directly engaging with potential sponsors.
“We were actually going to visit Meiji (Holdings. Co, Ltd., one of the federation’s major backers) on the day Tokyo recorded more than 800 people that were infected with the virus,” Masuda said. “And we decided to not do it (out of caution), but we are still going to do that eventually.”
Overall, para athletes and others involved in para sports are largely optimistic despite various challenges stemming from the pandemic, perhaps thanks to the resiliency they have developed while coping with the disabilities that have shaped their lives and athletic careers.
Yamamoto has used the last year to try out prostheses with different hardness levels from what he’s worn in the past, something he wouldn’t have had time to do if the Paralympics had been held as scheduled. He said that he would probably go with a softer model than one that he was originally planning to use for the long jump.
“That’s usually something you do during the winter (offseason),” the Shizuoka Prefecture native said. “You can’t drastically change things once the season starts. And you have to (use the prostheses) throughout the year to really see if it fits you. So you might think the whole year was wasted, but I take it positively that I was given a chance to look for prostheses that fit me.”
Kawamura, who serves as the captain for Japan’s blind soccer team and has competed in many international tournaments, thinks his physical training during the country’s state of emergency will pay off on the pitch.
“I feel like my body core has gotten stronger and I’ve gained flexibility in my left leg,” said Kawamura, who works for Axa in the company’s public relations department. “So I feel like the period wasn’t a waste for me and that I’m at my best physically right now.”
Many of the para sports will continue to face irregular circumstances ahead of the games, with competition schedules including qualifying events still undetermined in many cases.
But Japan’s blind soccer squad might have an edge over other participants because, according to Miyajima, it resumed team training last summer.
Japan was able to get back to the pitch that early thanks in part to increasing local awareness of the sport. In June, department store operator Marui Group opened a blind soccer pitch at its education center in the western Tokyo city of Kodaira.
“The venue is incredible,” Kawamura said. “It’s exclusively for us and we’ve been really able to focus on our training, so that’s great for us.”
The JBFA thinks that hosting the Paralympics on home soil is a million-dollar opportunity for the sport and has been enthusiastic about promoting it.
Fans have not been allowed to attend the 2020 Cup, with the association instead broadcasting games via its own YouTube channel.
“We’ve been able to deliver those games to those whom we haven’t been able to reach,” Miyajima said. “In fact, there have been some people watching games from places like Argentina and Iran. I think doing things like YouTube broadcasting can help us raise the profile of our sport.”
While he does not think the transition to an openly inclusive society will be easy in Japan, Yamamoto agreed that the Tokyo Paralympics will be paramount for the country to get closer to realizing that goal.
“I think the Japanese public has come to recognize what the Paralympics are about with the games coming to Tokyo,” Yamamoto said. “It was unimaginable when I started competing in a para sport and the Paralympic movement we’ve seen now makes me feel happy.”
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