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Experts’ Views

The Paralympics as an Agent for Social Change

July 14, 2022

Senior Paralympic official Aki Taguchi draws on her own experience as a former Paralympic athlete to offer suggestions on how the momentum of the Tokyo Games can be used to build a more inclusive society for all.

Over 13 days in August and September 2021, 163 delegations (countries, regions, and refugee athletes, including the Russian Paralympic Committee) participated the pandemic-delayed Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Contests were held in 539 events across 22 sports, with Japanese athletes winning 51 medals (13 gold, 15 silver, and 23 bronze) in 12 sports.

Since Tokyo was selected as the host city in September 2013, many athletes and officials in Japan had looked forward to hosting the Games in venues filled with spectators. This, unfortunately, did not come to pass, but even without people in the stands, Paralympic events were eagerly followed in the host country on TV and the Internet from morning until late at night. Thanks to detailed explanations in Japanese about rules and disability classifications and descriptions of athletes’ backgrounds, many viewers said they truly enjoyed watching the Paralympics and were moved by the heights that could be achieved through the strength of human will. After the Games closed, 70% of respondents in a survey reported they were glad that Tokyo had been able to host the event.

©Photo Kishimoto

©Photo Kishimoto

Prior to the start of each summer Paralympics, the Paralympians Association of Japan conducts a survey of the members of the Japanese delegation in the upcoming Games and the most recently held winter Games.

The latest survey was the fourth conducted to date and asked athletes, coaches, and essential support staff of the Tokyo and 2018 PyeongChang Paralympic Games about the conditions surrounding their efforts to prepare for competition. Responses were provided by 311 people (169 athletes and 142 coaches and staff), a response rate of 60.5%.

When asked about how conditions had changed, 34.3% said they had improved a great deal, and another 34.3% said they had improved. Approximately 70% of respondents thus felt that the sports environment for para-athletes is improving, a trend that was particularly pronounced for athletes competing in Tokyo. This was no doubt due to the policies and measures implemented by the national government, the Japan Paralympic Committee (JPC), and other organizations after Tokyo was selected to host the 2020 Games. I, too, believe that conditions for athletes have greatly improved, but there are still some issues that need to be addressed.

For instance, when asked whether they have been refused or had conditions imposed on them when seeking access to sports facilities over the last four years, 21.3% of athletes answered yes. This was almost unchanged from 21.6% of the previous survey (conducted of delegations to the 2016 Rio and 2014 Sochi Games), despite the various policies and awareness-raising campaigns that were implemented in the run-up to Tokyo 2020.

Of the athletes who answered yes to this question, the largest group, at 50%, had a cervical spine injury, followed by 38.5% suffering from a spinal cord injury. What this tells us is that they were probably wheelchair users. The fact that even some Paralympians find it difficult to gain access to sports facilities suggests that the hurdles to sports participation faced by other disabled people in Japan are that much higher.

There were 205 delegations competing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which was about 40 more than in the Paralympic Games. I am sure there are many reasons why a country may be able to send a delegation to the Olympics but not the Paralympics. The difference, though, points to the lack in many countries of an environment where people with disabilities can enjoy sports. And in such cases, one can easily imagine there being challenges to gaining universal access to not only sports but also other facilities in their communities.

In March 2020, I visited Laos and Bangladesh on a public diplomacy program administered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and had an opportunity to meet local para-athletes and visit schools for disabled children in low-income neighborhoods. In both countries, I was told that local sports facilities do not have universal access, that competing in the Paralympics remained a distant dream because training centers exist only for Olympians, and that simply getting around alone could be difficult, as their neighborhoods and public transportation were not designed with easy access in mind.

Tokyo became the first city to host two Summer Paralympics, and given all the global attention the city received, we need to build on this legacy to continue communicating, encouraging, and striving to improve the environment for para-athletes and other people with disabilities in Japan and around the world.

During Tokyo 2020, I served as an associate mayor of the Olympic and Paralympic Village and as a volunteer at the shooting range. One of my Olympic and Paralympic Village colleagues said to me, “I was surprised to see so many cheerful, smiling, and confident Paralympians, and I realized that the image I used to have of disabled people as being downcast was just a stereotype. At the same time, though, I felt we needed to do more to create an environment where all people with disabilities can be just as upbeat and outgoing as the para-athletes.” This comment reinforced my conviction that the Paralympics are not just a sporting event but also an opportunity for athletes, officials, staff, spectators, and everyone else involved to think about the kind of society we want to build.

Many of us involved in the Games held last summer are doing our best to make sure that, just as the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics highlighted the need to do more to promote the independence and social participation of people with disabilities, Tokyo 2020 will, too, leave behind a legacy of positive change that leads to a more inclusive society for all.

Translated by the SSF from an article published in Japanese on January 12, 2022.

Aki Taguchi

Aki Taguchi

Director, Sasakawa Sports Foundation
Vice President, Paralympians Association of Japan

After graduating from college, sailed around the world as a purser on a cruise ship. Suffered damage to her central nervous system at age 25 due to a blood vessel rupture in the spinal cord. Began sport shooting with a beam rifle before starting to use a real rifle. Competed in three consecutive Paralympic Games in Athens (2004), Beijing (2008), and London (2012). Was an athlete member of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, and is an executive board member of the Japan Olympic Committee.

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