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Gearing Up for the Games / Paralympics — improving alongside Games

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Wheelchair basketball and other Paralympic athletes practice at the Nippon Foundation Para Arena, which opened in June.

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the final installment of a series.

In recent years, coaches and athletes with Olympic experience have offered their training know-how, shared training facilities, and actively worked with athletes aspiring to compete at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. These efforts have greatly benefited sports associations, Olympians and Paralympic athletes who have been able to improve their mental and physical conditioning regimes.

‘My tennis has changed’

There has always been less of a divide in the operation of contests for able-bodied and disabled tennis players. Grand Slam tournaments, for example, hold simultaneous competitions for both classes of athlete. With an eye toward boosting his sport’s popularity, wheelchair tennis star Shingo Kunieda said “to improve [the standing of the sport], the quality of wheelchair tennis athletes must be high.”

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Since April, Kunieda has been developing a more aggressive style under the guidance of coach Tasuku Iwami, who won the All-Japan Tennis Championships men’s doubles, and has worked to improve his net play, among other aspects of his game. Kunieda’s coach is uncompromising, demanding high-level tactical play.

“What he’s doing is the same as what able-bodied athletes are doing,” Iwanami said.

“My tennis has changed in the past few months,” Kunieda said. With his new abilities, Kunieda will compete for the gold medal at the Tokyo Paralympics after falling short at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.

Atsushi Yamamoto, the running long jump silver medalist at the Rio Paralympic Games, turned professional — a rare achievement for a para-athlete. He now works with female track and field athletes at the Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences, his alma mater. Because the number of top Paralympic athletes is relatively low, many athletes lack training partners and face difficulties improving their training regimes and motivating themselves.

Yamamoto stressed the benefits of training alongside able-bodied athletes, saying, “There are some athletes who are slower than me and some who are faster, so naturally I think, ‘I don’t want to lose’ to the person running next to me.”

Athletes and coaches with Olympic ambitions can find practice venues and partners through their clubs, schools and sports associations, and also frequently exchange training techniques and other information. Yamamoto believes the Paralympics “should become even more closely connected to the Olympic Games, which have a long history and extensive human network.” He said his goal is for Paralympic athletes to become part of this trend.

Increase in full-time staff

In addition to Kunieda and Yamamoto, who managed to secure their own coaches and training facilities, more and more Paralympic athletes and organizations are receiving guidance from able-bodied former athletes and specialists. In fiscal 2015, the Japanese Paralympic Committee (JPC) introduced the “Full-time coach system” (now “Full-time staff system”), which provides annual salary of nearly ¥10 million for each Paralympic coach and trainer.

While there has been a sharp rise in government funds with an eye on developing Japan’s athletes ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics, the number of full-time staff members has increased from 17 across 11 associations in the first year to 66 across 24 associations, including the JPC itself.

The JPC is calling on Olympic sports associations to dispatch staff members with specialist knowledge, a request that many associations have accepted. The number of full-time staff members at the Japanese Para-Swimming Federation has increased to seven, including trainers and information specialists. The staff members include able-bodied former athletes and coaches. Satoshi Takada, a soccer coach certified by the Japan Football Association, works full-time as the head coach for Japan’s blind soccer team. The sport is a variation of soccer for the visually impaired, featuring teams of five players.

Paralympic sports associations are also increasing their sponsorship income in an effort to secure independent funds. In addition to Takada, the Japan Blind Football Association is using its independent resources to attract coaches and other staff from the JFA’s futsal division to develop players.

Seiichi Sakurai, vice president of the JPC, expects Japan will move past its failure to win a single gold medal at the Rio Paralympics. “There are more and more people in the Paralympic world who have the level of talent that we’re looking for,” he said. “The structure needed for Japan to perform at a high level on the world stage is being created, albeit little by little.”

Funds grow, facilities an issue

On June 1, the Nippon Foundation Para Arena, a gymnasium built especially for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, opened in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. The one-story, steel-reinforced building, which cost about ¥790 million, features a 2,035-square-meter main floor and barrier-free facilities, including shower rooms and restrooms. Athletes and associations aiming for the Tokyo Paralympics can use the facility for free.

Wheelchair rugby and other aspiring Paralympic athletes have struggled to find training spaces. They have been denied access to gymnasiums due to the risk of damage to floors, and there have been delays in renovating facilities to make them barrier free.

The Para Arena has solved such issues, applying thick wax to the floors to prevent tire tracks. The creation of a permanent arena is expected to accelerate the process of improving the quality of Japan’s Paralympic athletes, but the arena is scheduled to be torn down after the Tokyo Paralympics at the end of fiscal 2021.

While increased funds have led to better support for top-level athletes, the Paralympics still face a number of challenges, including establishing training facilities; fostering athletes, coaches and other personnel; and securing funds for individual sports associations.

In 2015, the Nippon Foundation provided ¥10 billion and established the Paralympic Support Center in Minato Ward, Tokyo, to strengthen the administrative capabilities of Paralympic sports associations facing precarious circumstances. Twenty-eight sports associations now have offices at the center that function as operational bases.

However, they can only maintain their offices until the end of fiscal 2021. Tomofumi Kaneko, the project leader of the center’s Promotion Strategy Department, said, “We hope the associations will foster their own talented personnel and find a way to operate independently by that time.” Still, many worry about the environment for disabled athletes after the Tokyo Paralympics.Speech

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