Japan is sending a record number of athletes to the Paralympic Games with the aim of not only winning gold medals but also building a more inclusive society, according to senior team official Miki Matheson.
Herself a gold medalist at the 1998 Paralympic Winter Games in Nagano, Matheson is one of three assistant chiefs for the Japan team and has high hopes for the Tokyo Games.
“The success of the Paralympic Games is not just whether the athletes score or win a lot of medals,” the sportswoman told AFP in an interview.
“The Paralympic Games will not be successful if we cannot feel that (people with disabilities) can go out more comfortably and that the people around them can change their way of thinking because of the Paralympic Games,” she added. .
The biggest sporting event for athletes with disabilities opens on Tuesday after a pandemic one-year delay.
But with cases of the virus reaching new records in Japan, the health situation weighs as much on the organizers as on the participants.
During the Tokyo Olympics, Japan won a record 27 gold medals, which the National Olympic Committee said helped build public support for the Games despite the pandemic.
But Matheson said the Paralympic Games have a mission that goes beyond sport and that Japan still has a long way to go to make society inclusive.
Matheson, who won three gold and one silver in the ice sledge speed races in Nagano, became paraplegic after a car accident while a college student.
She had practiced judo before the accident, but turned to para sports after her injury.
The 48-year-old is now based in Canada with her family, but is temporarily living in her hometown of Tokyo while working with the team.
Despite Japan’s efforts since winning the Paralympic host bid to improve access and inclusion for people with disabilities, Matheson said there were marked differences with life in Canada.
– ‘Continue this momentum’ –
“I am often treated like a disabled person when I return to Japan,” said Matheson, who uses a wheelchair.
“In Canada, I live without noticing my disability at all. “
She attributes this in part to the lack of opportunities for people with and without disabilities to work and live together in Japan.
“I think the Paralympic Games are just a stepping stone, but they can play a major role” in breaking down barriers, she said.
Matheson, who is also a member of the Japanese Paralympic Committee, wants the Games to be more than a one-time boost.
“What we really need to do is keep this momentum going,” she said.
“The end of the closing ceremony cannot be the end of it. “
The Japanese Paralympic team will consist of 254 athletes – the largest ever to field the country – and will be led by wheelchair tennis legend Shingo Kunieda.
Athletes will face tough conditions, with strict virus rules requiring daily testing and a ban on going anywhere except their accommodation, training venues and venues. .
There will be no cheering crowds, with nearly all spectators excluded from the events as new nationwide infections in Japan have surpassed 25,000 in recent days.
Some Paralympians face additional risk as the underlying health conditions make them more vulnerable to serious illness with Covid-19, or they work close to assistants and cannot remain socially distant from them.
But Matheson said that “for Paralympians facing unfavorable challenges and pursuing what is possible for them is nothing special.
“Although conditions are tough during the pandemic, it means a lot to them to see what they can do and shine. “
© 2021 AFP