Japan has set lofty goals for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics which kick off next Aug. 25, but by aiming for packed venues and a top-seven finish on the medal table, organizers are seeking far more than national pride and prestige.
With disabled sports an important arena in the fight for social equality, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics are a chance to radically change the playing field in Japan by raising awareness of people with disabilities to new heights.
(Honoka Nakamichi (L), born without her right leg, and Honoka Okabe, born without her right arm below the elbow, swim together in a pool in Kashiwa, near Tokyo, on July 22, 2019.)
"When the games end, we'll continue," Toshio Yamada, the Japanese Para-Sports Association executive director, said in a recent interview with Kyodo News.
"I don't think we can go backward. How we succeed in moving forward will really be the legacy of the Tokyo games, what happens from 2021 on, how we sustain our movement; that is a big issue for us...We want the general public to comprehend the need for more inclusion of the disabled in sports."
Disabled sports in Japan will have an unprecedented spotlight next summer, but the excitement is tinged with concern that once the party ends and the fervor diminishes, so too will the funds for disabled athletes.
The JPSA administers disabled sports and develops athletes. It maintains the structures that allow for Japan's Paralympic success. Hosting next year means shining a light on what the organization stands for. The Tokyo Games will represent a huge boost, allowing para sports in Japan to ride a wave of enthusiasm and the sponsorship that comes with that excitement.
"But even in the midst of these favorable conditions, we are still faced with what happens after," Yamada said. "It will be like the tide going out. If people abandon us, what will we do?"
"We've been spending a lot on developing athletes, but what would happen if it (funds) should go south? Without money, we can't get stronger. If the Japan Sports Agency withdraws some funding, we are going to be in a real bind."
"Even if citizens (next summer) are burning with enthusiasm...it's still possible corporate funding will dwindle. Our biggest issue is to what degree we can stem that. How can we sustain ourselves?"
The answer, or at least the action plan, is to make 2020 an unforgettable achievement for para sports. To achieve that, para sports organizers have set high goals for 2020.
"This association is tackling two things as we head toward 2020," Yamada said. "The first is that every arena at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will be filled, not just those in which Japanese are competing, but every venue for every competition. The second is for Japanese athletes to perform well and win gold and silver medals."
"Of course, we're not going to achieve 100 percent of that, but we want to come close."
To fill the venues, the JPSA and its sponsors have been laying the groundwork by bringing para sports into the community, particularly through schools. That means using tournaments to introduce para athletes and their sports to school children.
Yamada said a basketball tournament will be accompanied by school visits by athletes and wheelchairs kids can ride in.
"Then on the day of the event, we'll get kids to come and cheer on the competitors," Yamada said. "That can be actually part of their school lessons. On Sunday, for the finals, then perhaps they can bring their family, their parents, and their grandparents."
"We've done a lot of this in Chiba, bringing elementary and junior high school kids to events in buses. It makes the events so much more exciting. A lot of disabled sports competitions have few spectators and thus are a little less energetic. If we don't generate that energy, it's harder for the athletes to push themselves to get better and better."
(Wheelchair athletes practice at Nippon Foundation Para Arena in Tokyo on June 1, 2018.)
(Tomomi Tozawa, a long jumper with an artificial leg, leaps in Yokohama, eastern Japan, on Aug. 2, 2019.)
Yamada said, too, that corporate sponsors are becoming more than just financial supporters but activists for the bigger cause, seeing aspects of para sports that benefit their business.
"Right now we have 33 major corporate sponsors," Yamada said. "They provide us with funds, but it's not just that. Three years ago, the sponsors began attending our partners meetings. Thirty different corporate sponsors attend meetings here at the association several times a year. They attend lectures on disabled sports."
The corporate sponsors also lend staff to the association, not only because it boosts their corporate image, but because they believe the experience benefits their employees.
Yamada said sponsors have taken to exposing their employees to disabled sports because they place different demands on communicating and coordinating with their teammates. He cited goalball, where sighted players can compete alongside those with visual impairments.
"You need to cooperate because you can't see," Yamada said. "These kinds of experiential events are increasingly popular."
Yamada hopes the heightened social participation and awareness that come with the Paralympics will change minds about social roles for the disabled. He reflected on how Japanese society was before Tokyo hosted its first Paralympics in 1964, still formally an edition of the International Stoke Mandeville Games.
"Many disabled in Japan were unable to leave their homes, unable to get married," Yamada said. "Society has come a long way."
"Now we want society to say to those who remain shut in their homes 'Please go out and participate.' In 2021, if there is a legacy from Tokyo 2020 that is the one we want."