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Chairman Yamawaki and Rio Paralympics Gold Medalist Discuss Their Hopes for Tokyo 2020 (Part I)

It is now 2019—only one more year until the year of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. What can we do in this year to promote the power and beauty of the Paralympics, and create a more inclusive society through parasports? We sat down with Yasushi Yamawaki, Chairman of The Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center (Parasapo), and Heinrich Popow, a gold medalist at the Rio 2016 Paralympics—visiting Japan from Germany—in order to discuss the changes the Paralympics have brought to their societies, and what these changes mean.

Yasushi Yamawaki

Born on January 23, 1948. From Handa City, Aichi Prefecture. Graduated from Nagoya University in 1970, and entered Nippon Yusen Kaisha, a major marine transportation company. Became Vice Chairman, then Advisor starting 2016. Became involved with the Paralympics in 2011 after fielding a request from Mitsunori Torihara, Chairman of the Japanese Para-Sports Association (JPSA) and the Japanese Paralympic Committee (JPC). Has served as Governing Board Member of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) since 2013, President of the Japanese Paralympic Committee and Vice President of The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games since 2014, and Chairman of The Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center since 2015. His hobbies are golf and skiing.

Born on July 14, 1983. Moved from his birth country of Kazakhstan to Germany when he was seven years old. A tumor was discovered in his left calf when he was eight years old, which led to his leg being amputated below the knee. Began athletics at 13 years old, and competed in four consecutive Paralympics, starting with the Athens 2004 Paralympics. Won bronze medals in the 100m, 200m, and the long jump (T42 class) events, then decided to focus on the 100m, going on to win a silver medal at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, and a gold medal in the London 2012 Paralympics. Competed in the long jump (T42) event at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and won a gold medal. Retired from the sport in 2018. Also serves as a prosthetist/orthotist, working mainly in Germany.

Chairman Yamawaki and Popow met for the first time in January 2015. Popow hosts Running Clinics, in which he teaches people who have had their legs amputated due to illness or injury how to walk and run on their sports prostheses, all over the world. Chairman Yamawaki says Popow’s passion for his cause was a source of inspiration for him.

Heinrich Popow (hereafter “Popow”): I’d heard it was really important in Japan to show respect to your superiors, so I was a bit nervous to meet Mr. Yamawaki. But when I actually met him—he came to visit me on the field, if I remember correctly—I immediately felt that he was someone I could share my passion with. We were able to talk candidly about my Running Clinics and the sports that he was interested in. I learned that he was really passionate about parasports and that he preferred being on the field, closer to the players, than in the VIP room, which was nice to hear.

Popow, who won a gold medal in the long jump event at the Rio Paralympics, retired from his sport in 2018

Parasapo Chairman Yamawaki (hereafter “Yamawaki”): I first saw Mr. Popow when he competed in the para athletics 100m finals race at the London 2012 Paralympics. But at the time I was only focused on watching Atsushi Yamamoto from Japan, and I just remember someone passing him right after the 50m mark. Afterwards, I looked at the photos and learned that it was Mr. Popow who had passed Yamamoto and won the gold medal.

After that, I went to the Running Clinic in Tokyo, and I realized then that Mr. Popow was someone that was different from other athletes. In his Running Clinic, he was teaching children and adults and even athletes that having fun was the #1 priority, and he was interacting with everyone as equals.

It also surprised me that he had no interest in business, despite being a gold medalist and being at the very top of his sport. Generally, when an athlete becomes one of the best at their sport, they’ll focus on setting up a business or getting more sponsors for themselves. But Mr. Popow was telling people that instead of investing in him, they should be investing in children and people who had just started playing sports. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really believe him the first time I heard that. But then later, when we went to visit Ishinomaki City in Miyagi Prefecture, he was saying to people, “Children are our future, so investing in children is creating the future,” and just the way he was interacting with the children made me realize this passion of his was real. Since then, we’ve gotten to know each other better, and now Mr. Popow is one of my closest friends.

Popow: It’s my policy not to go for financial gain in sports. This was my father’s influence.

After I won my gold medal, my father told me, “If you want money, it’s better to work. If you’re going to play sports, do it with passion.” So I decided to do both, separately, as a prosthetist/orthotist and an athlete. I’d travel around the world, and every time I saw some children wearing the prosthesis I’d made with my father and another prosthetist/orthotist, I knew I’d done the right thing in terms of both my passion and my work. Another thing is that being an athlete comes with a lot of negatives, like not performing as well as you want to, or getting injured, and having this work made it so I could look at things from a different perspective and “reset” my feelings when I was upset. I think balancing my work and my athletic efforts have allowed me to really grow as a person.

Chairman Yamawaki talking about his first encounter with parasports

Yamawaki: A lot of athletes don’t really know what to do after winning a gold medal at the Paralympics. It must be hard to keep up the same motivation after winning a gold medal, no matter how hard you try to do it for yourself. I personally worked in a company for 45 years before discovering parasports and becoming involved with the Paralympics—it’s so fun and I’m really glad to be a part of it. It’s incredibly motivating to do things for other people.

Popow: I think that’s the reason why you have this really youthful energy, and why we felt this connection—because we share this way of thinking.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

Next >>> Go on to Part II

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