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From Rehabilitation to Athletic Sport
-Turning Point of the Paralympics-

Kyoko Takahashi
/Professor and vice principal of Kawaguchi Art School of Waseda University,
Visiting professor of Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University

The 2008 Beijing Paralympics held on September 6 to 17. I covered this event as a correspondent of Registered Not for Profit Organization International Parasports Photography Liaison Council.

Parasports in China

In the 2008 Paralympics organized by the same Organizing Committee as the 2008 Olympic Games, about 4000 people from 148 countries/areas, a record high, participated. China sent 332 athletes, the largest number of all the countries, and got 211 medals among 472 events. It has successfully maintained the top position since the Athena Paralympics. What is the background of Chinese overwhelming strength? One of the factors is infrastructure improvement for supporting parasports.

Parasports in China began with establishment of Chinese Sports Association for the Disabled in 1983. In China, about two million disabled people play sports, among which about 1.5 million challenge Paralympic sport events (source: China Daily on September 6). There are 18 training centers for intensified training of parasports located across the country. Above all, China parasports training center constructed in Beijing in 2004 is a large-scaled facility, containing a gym for wheelchair basketball and rugby, official pool, and archery field.

Barrier-free environments have been swiftly promoted. The city of Beijing invested 67 million yuan (about one billion yen) to make 60 tourist spots including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City barrier-free. At the same time, China focused on appealing a disabled-friendly city. In subway trains and elevators at hotels, videos of athletes who "push hard without giving up their dreams" and images claiming coexistence of the Able-bodied and the Disabled were being repeatedly broadcast. However, I rarely encountered the disabled while walking in the city. I feel there is a long way to go before the disabled can go out at ease. Even if so, there is no doubt the Paralympics became a trigger for changing a bias against the disabled.

Various disparities becoming apparent

As symbolized by a South African runner Oscar Pistrius who won three gold medals in field events with high-tech artificial limbs, sophisticated prosthetics got great attention. Natalie Du Toit, also representative from South Africa, even participated in the Olympic Games as swimmer. Improved performance by these athletes is one of the features this Paralympics had.

Now, the Paralympics is reaching a drastic turning point from rehabilitation to athletic sport. At the same time, new disparities are becoming apparent, including disparity between countries accessible to sophisticated prosthetics and high-performance wheelchairs and those not accessible, and disparity between almost professional sports such as basketball and rugby and minor sports. There is also a discrepancy in treatment between the Paralympics and Olympic Games.

Though Japanese Paralympic athletes desire "the same treatment" as Olympic athletes, there is a definite difference in incentive. In case of Olympic athletes, Japan Olympic Committee gives gold medalists three million yen, silver medalists two million yen, and bronze medalists one million yen. In case of Paralympic athletes, however, Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare decided to give gold medalists one million yen, silver medalists 0.7 million yen, and bronze medalists 0.5 million yen. Last month, Paralympic athletes themselves appealed for contributions on the street in order to establish a private fund. This means a lack of fund is so serious.

In the questionnaire conducted by Paralympians Association of Japan in June to 152 athletes including the Beijing Paralympic representatives, 82.9 % of them mentioned "expensive cost" as the "biggest difficulty in playing sports." It is assumed that the average expense an athlete has to bear privately for his or her sport per year amounts to 1.1 million yen.

Takahiro Hasegawa

Shinji Yoshida (60 year old, picture 8 and 9), who participated in the Beijing Paralympic Archery (wheelchair) after three challenges, said "I envy those athletes from countries offering financial support." He got infantile paralysis when he was only one year old and has been paralyzed below the waist. When he encountered the Great Hanshin Earthquake and lost the job, he came across archery. Thinking "the disabled can evenly compete in archery with the able-bodied," he has devoted himself to playing archery, taken camp training, and made domestic and overseas tours while managing the job at the common workplace for the disabled he was employed in. All of these were privately born. In the Beijing Paralympics, he won the first heat, but lost the second one. He said "due to lack of exercise" and regretted that he was able to practice exercise only once a week because he is a working person.

As athletic performance is improving, disparity in age becomes more apparent. I was asked by a Chinese journalist why Japanese archery players are middle-to-elder-aged. The average age of Chinese players is 24.4 year old. On the other hand, among Japanese archery male players, the youngest player is Takahiro Hasegawa from Waseda University (19 year old) and the oldest one is 66 year old. The average age is 45, which is high indeed compared to the Chinese one. As for female players, Chieko Kamiya (48 year old) started archery after age 40 thinking "it is too late for swimming, but not for archery", and won a silver medal. Though not young, athletes overcoming difficulties and continuing challenge make the Paralympics fruitful and impress people watching games.

First let's go and see to have fun

Through this journalist activity, I realized parasports is also athletic sport. I am wondering whether the Paralympics will go for place where only a handful of elite athletes compete sport events, or where many athletes with various disabilities and ages can participate. I believe those who concerned with parasports as well as the ably-bodied should widely discuss what parasports is to be. As the first step, let's go and see to have fun.

Photos 1, 2, and 4 to 7: by Ken-ichiro Abe (Registered Not for Profit Organization International Parasports Photography Liaison Council, Paraphoto)
Photos 3, 8, 9: By Kyota Ohgi (Registered Not for Profit Organization International Parasports Photography Liaison Council, Paraphoto)

Kyoko Takahashi
/Professor and vice principal of Kawaguchi Art School of Waseda University,
Visiting professor of Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University

Journalist. She was born in Chiba prefecture and completed the M.A. degree course at Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University. After job at Business Week Tokyo office and a special visiting professor at Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, Keio University, she was appointed a professor and vice principal of Kawaguchi Art School of Waseda University in 2003. She is also a visiting professor of Graduate School of Political Science. Her main film works include "Linda and Molly" (screened at the 11th Hawaii International Film Festival), "Homeless women, New York", and "Fresh air by next generation TV". She coauthored "New version Study Guide/Media Literacy", and "Promote or Protect - Media Literacy Initiatives in Citizen's Right to Communication-the Case of Japan", and created 2006 media literacy video materials for Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication. Director of Not for Profit Organization Saitama Video Volunteer Association. Now she is devoted to foster next generation video creators as well as to develop and practice media literacy education for everyone ranging from "general learning" at elementary schools to lifelong learning at local communities.