March 11 2022
TOKYO – In the 22 years since a cheating scandal rocked Paralympic sport in the wake of the Sydney Games, intellectually disabled athletes have been limited to marginal representation, something Japanese sports officials are eager to change.
As momentum builds for Sapporo’s bid to host the 2030 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, a decision that could be made this year, Japan is hoping to give promising para athletes with intellectual impairments a bigger share of the spotlight.
Shortly after the 2000 Games, 10 of 12 members of the gold medal-winning Spanish men’s basketball team were found to have fraudulently claimed their intellectual impairment. The incident resulted in a controversial, and more than decade long, worldwide ban on intellectually impaired sports.
The Paralympics welcomed back intellectually impaired athletes 12 years later at the London Games, but only after a rigorous new system for verifying degree of impairment was approved at the International Paralympic Committee General Assembly in 2009.
At the Tokyo Paralympics in 2021, a handful of intellectually impaired athletes competed in athletics, swimming and table tennis — the only three disciplines open to them.
Toshiyuki Saito, the head of the All Nippon ID Sport Association, also known as ANISA, is urging the IPC to allow competitors with intellectual impairments to contest a broader range of sports to give them more visibility at the Paralympics.
“They should increase the number of intellectual disability Paralympic medal events in order to give athletes with intellectual disability a chance to inspire the world,” Saito said.
In Hokkaido, Japan Para-Ski Federation General Manager Hideki Arai is helping para skiers develop their athletic talents at the Hokkaido Energy para ski team, of which he also serves as manager.
“Many athletes with intellectual disabilities from all over the world gathered in Nagano (for the 1998 Winter Paralympics). I want, not just the Summer Games, but the Winter Games to be a place where all para athletes can compete regardless of their functional capacity,” Arai said.
Athletes with intellectual impairments were first allowed to compete in the Paralympic Games in 1996, in Atlanta, in two sports, athletics and swimming.
In Nagano in 1998, the classification “ID,” standing for intellectual disability, was included in cross-country skiing events at the Paralympic Games. Hiroki Shinohara competed in the category in the men’s 20-kilometer classical event and won bronze for Japan.
After the 2000 scandal no events for intellectually impaired athletes were held at the Athens 2004 or Beijing 2008 Summer Paralympics.
The Paralympics are sometimes confused with the Special Olympics, which are open to athletes with intellectual disabilities, even children.
Elite athletes with impairments, either physical or intellectual, compete against one another at the Paralympics. The Special Olympics, specifically for athletes with intellectual impairments, give ribbons to all in recognition of their efforts while still awarding medals for those who rank in the top three.
At the ongoing Paralympics in Beijing, athletes lacking limb function or sight are demonstrating the potential of those with impairments and redefining for the world what is possible.
The addition of more competition for the intellectually impaired would only serve to push the Paralympics’ mission of inclusivity to still greater heights.