August 23rd 2019
TOKYO – While Japan targets seventh place or better in next year’s Paralympic medal table, para sports organizers believe it is unlikely Japan will be able to pull off the kind of long-term growth former hosts China and Britain have enjoyed.
Since China hosted the 2008 Summer Paralympics, the nation has made huge strides, winning 107 gold medals in 2016, roughly one-fifth of the 529 on offer in Rio de Janeiro. Britain finished second in Rio with 64 golds, 30 more than when it staged the games in 2012.
Toshio Yamada, the executive director of the Japan Para-Sports Association, expects Japan to make great advances as a result of hosting next year, but is guarded about the country’s potential to raise its game long term as China and Britain have done.
After winning five golds in Beijing in 2008 and another five in London in 2012, Japan failed to win a single gold medal three years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
However, Yamada is optimistic Japan can come close to reaching its target of winning 22 gold medals next year because of support that had not previously been available to its para athletes.
“It’s not only about being physically stronger, but also about the mental side, preparation and video analytics,” he said in a recent interview with Kyodo News. “Disabled athletes are also behind the times compared to their non-disabled counterparts in their awareness of nutrition. And we are remedying that.”
He said wheelchair racer Tomoki Sato, who has won an athletics world championships gold medal, has dramatically improved through better nutrition, something that will continue to be a major focus ahead of next year’s Paralympics.
The mental training side, Yamada said, is an area where Japan’s para athletes had not been getting the support that is now backed by funds funneled through the JPSA.
“Sports psychology is big,” he said. “Take wheelchair basketball, the ability to take the fear out of trying a shot. Through training, athletes can be calmer in stressful situations. These various areas of support are getting solid results.”
That, Yamada said, is the good news ahead of 2020, when strong results will play a factor in the movement’s future momentum. The other side of that coin is that the rapid expansion of para sports around the world has increased the level of competition and made winning that much harder.
In the three Paralympics from 1996 to 2004, Japan won a total of 44 gold medals, 15 of those by women’s swimming star Mayumi Narita. In 2008, she was required to compete in a different classification category against swimmers with less severe disabilities and her amazing medal run came to a halt.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle in keeping pace with para sports powerhouse China is Japan’s shrinking pool of potential para athletes.
“Although Japan’s disabled population is increasing, at least 70 percent of those are 65 years of age and above,” Yamada said. “The share of the disabled population who are in their 20s and 30s is decreasing.
In addition to Japan’s declining birthrate, Yamada cited other factors that limit the population of potential para athletes: improved traffic and industrial safety that have reduced the frequency and severity of injuries, while medical advances have also had a positive effect on the health of Japanese society.
While many nations have enjoyed these advances as well, Japan has a public health benefit that some of its Paralympic rivals do not enjoy — a lack of wounded soldiers from military engagements.
“Countries like the United States, Britain, Iran, have a large number of former soldiers, who are disabled as a result of war,” Yamada said. “They are young and strong. This is something Japan has trouble competing against, although that is a good thing.”
“But we have to do our best with those disabled athletes we have. It’s hard for us. We’re not like China with their huge population. We’re not going to beat China with their money and numbers.”
To do that means developing athletes as well as possible, as success at the top level motivates broader involvement in society, which in turn can open the doors for more potential world-class competitors.
But, Yamada said, the end goal of the Paralympics is not gold medals but the wellbeing of society.
“The more disabled people who can participate in sports, and can participate in society as equals with able-bodied people, the richer our society becomes,” Yamada said. “That is the Tokyo Paralympics’ real target.”