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Gaining attention towards 2020! A Talk Conference Regarding Volunteering at Para Sports Events

With imminent international events, including the Rugby World Cup and 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, there is an increasing interest in sports volunteers to help support the events. Amidst this movement, a lecture event on "Creating an inclusive society in which everyone can enjoy sports" was held on January 27 at the Nippon Foundation building. Over 100 people from sports volunteer groups and the general public attended.

The event was hosted by the Japan Sports Volunteer Network (JSVN). JSVN was established in 2012 with the purpose of nurturing a culture of sports volunteering and building a network of sports volunteer groups in Japan. Their activities include training sports volunteers, promotional activities and education.

The "Sports Volunteer Summit" is one of JSVN's activities, held every year since its establishment. This was the first year the summit was held with a theme on para sports. At the opening, JSVN Chairman Kazutoshi Watanabe talked about the significance of the theme. "There is still a lack of expertise regarding how to support para sports through volunteer activities. I hope you will learn about the current situation from today's speakers, who are involved in creating the environment for para sports today, and apply it to your future actions."

Watanabe called for attendants to "learn about the current situation of para sports."

To bring smiles to the athletes

The keynote speech was by Miki Matheson, Paralympic gold medalist and employee of the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center. She became wheelchair bound after an automobile accident at the age of 20, in the midst of pursuing her dream to become a physical education teacher. She talked about how returning to playing sports helped her get back on her feet and be more optimistic, and also about the differences in Japan and other countries regarding how people with disabilities are seen, from her experiences visiting overseas for sports events and studying abroad.

Regarding the theme of an "inclusive society," many people see a circle of people holding hands, surrounding and protecting people with disabilities who are placed inside the circle. However, Matheson emphasized that people with disabilities must be among the people creating the circle, holding hands with others. She wants to see a society that everyone and anyone can take part in, sharing the same place, time and activities.

Introducing episodes from her own life, she urged those who intend to volunteer at para sports events to focus on what people with disabilities can do and the possibilities, instead of what they cannot do and the negative aspects of their disabilities. In other words, she asked participants to let go of their preconceptions and assumptions regarding people with disabilities, and "Instead of trying to help them, think of what you can do with them."

She talked about how volunteer workers had a huge impact on whether or not an event was enjoyable or a country made her feel comfortable. She asked attendants to "make changes to your actions and thoughts in order to bring smiles to the athletes."

Matheson, based in Canada, talked about the differences between Japan and other countries.

Crucial points according to involved parties

Next was a panel discussion regarding "How to create an environment so that more people with disabilities can play sports," and "How to develop a culture that enables people with disabilities to support sports." Three panelists came on stage, along with moderator Shigeki Shibuya, Director of the Institute of Sports Policy, Sasakawa Sports Foundation.

First, Megumi Mashiko, 2000 Sydney Paralympic bronze medalist in wheelchair basketball and staff member of the Fukushima Sports Association for the Disabled, introduced efforts made in para sports promotion in Fukushima prefecture. "I have seen so many lives change when people find sports, more so when they have a disability," she said, stressing the value of para sports. "It is the power of people, through volunteer activities, that support these sports. It is important to 'plant seeds,' for example by training leaders."

Fuki Nagakura, Vice Chairman of the Yamanashi Volunteer and NPO Center executive committee, talked of her experiences volunteering and being involved in operations at international events. "In other countries, it is normal for people with disabilities to do volunteer work. In general we tend to see them as people who are to be supported, but they can be on the supporting side. In addition to preparing an accessible and safe environment, we should consider how to better match people with jobs according to their unique characteristics."

Hideki Yahagi, an athlete and sports volunteer with a disability, talked of his experiences volunteering at the Tokyo Marathon. "Although I am a wheelchair user, I was welcomed as if it was completely natural. Event administrators should use people with disabilities more, with a view on what they can offer. I would love to see more people with disabilities become involved, but not many people will come forward themselves, so it is my mission to help create opportunities."

The panel discussion with Mashiko of the Fukushima Sports Association for the Disabled (right) and others

Shibuya noted the role sports volunteers have of sharing the knowledge they gain through their experiences. "Regardless of whether you have a disability or not, from hereon the mission of volunteer workers will be to further advance the culture of sports together." This concluded the panel discussion.

Natsuki Den from the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games came on stage to share information on volunteering at Tokyo 2020. They plan to start recruiting in mid-September, and will require a diverse pool of people, including people with disabilities. Den emphasized the value of "watching games" in preparation of volunteering, and called to the summit attendants to "work together."

Lastly, Masaya Ninomiya, JSVN Director and professor at Bunkyo University, concluded the summit with the words, "Because Japan's population is falling, we will see higher expectation on the value of each individual as human resources. Please take home the realizations and new values you learned today, and apply them to your sports volunteering activities in 2020 and onward."

Start today to gain experience and confidence

There is definitely more interest and expectation in sports volunteering, due to the upcoming major international events. However, volunteers are needed not only at events, but also in everyday activities. Para sports in particular require a lot of human help, in the form of sports partners, assistants, transportation aid and more. Starting these activities today and accumulating experience will lead to greater confidence, and will be of immense help in 2020 and beyond.

The summit also brought forth new ideas. For example, when people with disabilities become involved in volunteer work, they can offer new insights from their own expertise in disabilities, regarding accessibility at facilities and more. The day's participants left with comments such as, "It was a good opportunity to think about people with disabilities, who I do not encounter that much in my daily life," and, "I now feel more confident to talk to people with disabilities." The Paralympics have the ultimate purpose of "creating an inclusive society." This talk event revealed the potential of sports volunteering towards this aim.

text&photos by Kyoko Hoshino
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