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Para Ekiden in TOKYO 2019(Part I): The Power of 17,500 Spectators Urges the Racers On!

On March 24, the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center (Parasapo) hosted the Para Ekiden in TOKYO 2019 on the Komazawa Olympic Park General Sports Ground and its jogging course. This fourth installment of the event, which started in 2015, saw teams from 16 prefectures (up from 14 the previous year, with 2 teams from Tokyo), and an international team from Cambodia as well. Including the two demonstration teams, comprised of celebrities and public figures, there were 20 teams total, with 180 people racing it out under the clear blue sky.

Guests and Crowd Alike Put Their All Into Supporting the Race

The central plaza was crowded in advance of the ekiden, which was to start at 11:00 A.M., with people that had gathered for the local specialty foods festival held as a part of the ekiden, and people on walks to see the freshly-bloomed cherry blossoms. Visitors sated their appetites, experienced parasport workshops held by partner companies, and took commemorative photos, enjoying their time before heading to the entrance of the venue. After entering the venue, they participated in polls, voting for the team they thought would win, and waving the paper fans they received at the entrance vigorously at the camera in an effort to be chosen as flagbearers, who get to enter the venue with the teams. In this once-a-year parasport event, even the time spent waiting is laden with excitement.

The flagbearer, who gets to enter the venue with the racers, was chosen from amongst the visitors!

There were polling boxes set up where visitors could vote for the team they thought would win

Comedy duo Kyaeen, a Para Ekiden Supporter, helped liven up the event

Parasapo Special Supporters Goro Inagaki and Shingo Katori and Para Ekiden Supporter and comedy duo Kyaeen showed up on stage for the opening act. When Inagaki referenced their parasport charity song “Ameagari no Step,” saying, “It really is ameagari [clear skies after rain] weather today,” Hiroyuki Amano of Kyaeen quickly interjected, “Hey, aren’t you guys missing someone?” When it was announced that Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, who at the moment was missing from the stage, would compete as a racer in the Para Ekiden, the crowd erupted. Katori did his part as well, discussing the paper fans, which are printed with an illustration of his that was exhibited last year at his solo exhibition, “NAKAMA des ARTS” in Paris. “Make sure to wave those fans!” he called out to the crowd.

Fugaku Taiko’s performance in the opening act also worked to liven up the racers

Local mascot characters were in full attendance as well, including Kumamon and Chibakun

After the opening act, the teams entered the venue along with their flagbearers. In Para Ekiden, racers—with and without various forms of impairment—pass the team sash to one another, relay-style, and try to come in first. In addition to the 18 teams from all over Japan, the event also featured Team Yoshimoto—their third time competing in the Para Ekiden—from the famous comic troupe Yoshimoto Kogyo, and a special collaboration team called “Team i enjoy!” led by Kusanagi.

Flagbearers entered the venue in front of the teams

The opening ceremony featured greetings from Parasapo Chairman Yasushi Yamawaki, Governor of Tokyo and Parasapo Special Advisor Yuriko Koike, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Masahiko Shibayama, and Minister in Charge of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games (at the time) Yoshitaka Sakurada. Blind singer-songwriter Koshi Kishita sang the national anthem, after which—in the hushed venue— the athlete’s declaration was announced. Finally, it was time for the ekiden.

Koshi Kishita sang the national anthem, as he did the two previous years

Five of the racers made the athlete’s declaration

The Cambodian team, including Japanese comedian Hiroshi Neko, showed off their team spirit in the opening ceremony

This year, Inagaki was in charge of the countdown, and Katori in charge of starting the race. It was 12:45 P.M. when the visually impaired racers in the 1st section, along with their guide racers, set off, kicking off the race.

From left to right: Chairman Yashiro of the Para Ekiden Executive Committee, Governor Koike, and Parasapo Chairman Yamawaki, who were in attendance at the opening ceremony

Parasapo Special Supporter Katori set off the starting pistol to begin the race!

20 Teams, Each Passing Their Sashes Along

The course, which is 2.342 km long, is comprised of the track and field race course and the jogging course on the grounds, with eight racers on each team for a total distance of 18.736 km. The team structure is as follows.

Team Structure

1st Section: Visually impaired racer and guide racer
2nd Section: Hearing impaired racer
3rd Section: Wheelchair racer (Women)
4th Section: Able-bodied racer (Men)
5th Section: Intellectually impaired racer
6th Section: Physically impaired racer
7th Section: Able-bodied racer (Women)
8th Section: Wheelchair racer (Men)

Racers in the two demonstration teams wore lenses that radically narrowed their field of vision, locked their arms into place with supporters, etc., to compete in the same conditions as the other races.

Tsuyoshi Kusanagi ran in the 4th section for “Team i enjoy!”

The crowd did a wave, coming together to cheer on the racers

Utar Para Hokkaido (Hokkaido Prefecture), a first-time competitor in the Para Ekiden, shot to the front when the race began, trailed by Very Good Tochigi (Tochigi Prefecture), trying for their third consecutive victory, and TEAM MIYAGI (Miyagi Prefecture), a powerhouse team full of experienced racers. Once outside the race course, however, TEAM MIYAGI blasted ahead of the pack. That is, before being overtaken again by Utar Para Hokkaido, who returned to the race course, ahead once again. Though TEAM MIYAGI forged ahead, taking the lead again in the 2nd section, the 3rd section saw Very Good Tochigi shoot up to the front—almost as if they had planned it—and stay there, eventually clinching their third consecutive victory.

Masubuchi of Very Good Tochigi came across the goal tape, marking the team’s third consecutive victory

Guests and local mascot character Tochimarukun posing around the winning team, Very Good Tochigi

Serving as the anchor for Very Good Tochigi was Tomomi Masubuchi, who was a member of the Japan national team for men’s wheelchair basketball at the London Paralympics.
After the race, he revealed the pressure he had felt towards this third consecutive victory. “I started my section first, and I’m relieved I was able to keep the lead,” he said, smiling.

*Next >>> Go on to Part II

photo & text by Parasapo

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