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Powerlifting Test Event: Issues and Lessons Learned at the Official Tokyo Paralympic Games Venue

The Tokyo 2020 test event READY STEADY TOKYO – Powerlifting was held from September 26-27 at the Tokyo International Forum. Male athletes competed in 10 classes and female athletes in 9, with new Japan records set in 4 classes.

16-year old up-and-comer Karin Morisaki set a new junior Japan record!

Kentaro Higuchi of Men’s 72kg Sets New Japan Record, But Falls Short of Own Expectations

Dramatic music, to heighten emotion. Booming announcements as to what makes each athlete special. The lighting, designed in such a way as to illuminate only the stage, so it looks as if it is floating in a sea of darkness. All of it led one to think of the blood, sweat, and tears that would be shed on this stage, a year from now.

On the first day, and amidst all of the drama, Kentaro Higuchi of the Men’s 72kg class managed to take a significant step forward in qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. In his first try, he lifted 175kg—3kg more than the Japan record he had set at the World Para Powerlifting Championships in July—and was crowned champion.

Kentaro Higuchi, working to beat his own record

He had failed in his second and third tries, however, both 180kg. “I’m not happy with the results. If I’d been able to lift 180kg the second time, I wanted to go all the way up to 185kg,” he said, seeming dissatisfied. If he had lifted his minimum goal of 180kg, there would have been a high chance he would have ended up within the top eight in the world rankings—which would have qualified him for the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

He knew why he wasn’t able to achieve this goal in this tournament. High accuracy requires high-level technique. “I just don’t have enough experience,” said Higuchi, with frustration. Higuchi, who turns 47 this year, had only started para powerlifting in 2017, after being involved in a traffic accident. It’s only been two years since he started the sport.

His rate of growth, however, is astonishing if you consider the fact that he has increased his maximum performance by 39kg in the past two years. His goal from now on is to hit 190kg—a number that will put him on the same level as the world’s top-class powerlifters for next April, and a number that is not unrealistic for him at this stage. Already, he is becoming somewhat of a star in the Japan para powerlifting world.

Odo Crowed Champion, Nishizaki Comes in 3rd

Hideki Odo made it to the podium at the Tokyo International Forum, which is to be the official venue for next year

Amongst the more long-time para powerlifters, it was Hideki Odo, aiming to compete in his fourth consecutive Paralympic Games, and Tetsuo Nishizaki, aiming to compete in his second, that made themselves known to their competitors and to the audience. Both were in the Men’s 88kg class.

Odo failed to lift 197kg—the Japan record he himself had set in April of this year—but managed to lift a 190kg in his second attempt, winning a gold medal. “I wasn’t doing well physically, so most of that was mental strength. I’m pretty proud of myself, actually,” he said, looking satisfied with his performance.

Odo is currently 12th in the rankings for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Though he has not made it into the top eight—which he needs to do to qualify—he says he does feel some sense of progress. “If I can’t get up to 207-208kg by next April, I probably won’t be able to compete in Tokyo. I sometimes wonder if I’ll be able to up my performance by 10kg, but I’ve lifted 205kg during training before, and I do feel like I can do it,” he told us.

Nishizaki, who competed in the Rio Paralympic Games, had lowered his class from his previous 54kg to 49kg and lifted 130kg, coming in third place.

“My performance was what I expected. I changed my class because I wanted to increase my chances for competing in Tokyo. I’m planning on going with 49kg for the remaining two tournaments as well,” he said, about his plans to up his world ranking through the Manchester Para Powerlifting World Cup in February and the Dubai Para Powerlifting World Cup in April.

Tetsuo Nishizaki, who lowered his class to Men’s 49kg in order to bolster his world ranking

Sakamoto of Women’s 73kg Breaks Past the Minimum Entry Standard for Tokyo 2020

Chika Sakamoto doing a fist pump after lifting 72kg

Chika Sakamoto of Women’s 73kg failed two attempts before finally lifting 72kg—the minimum entry standard for the Tokyo Paralympic Games—in her third try. “I’m so relieved,” she said, sounding like she would burst into tears.

She had been very nervous in her first and second attempts and had been taken off guard when she was able to lift the barbell fairly easily. As a result, she’d been unable to control the speed with which she lifted, and had failed both times—which is why the third time had been so emotional for her. “I’m going to work hard to make sure I can come back here next year,” she said, determined.

Eri Yamamoto beat her own Japan record at this tournament, in the venue for Tokyo 2020

Eri Yamamoto of Women’s 55kg started at 60kg, and succeeded in lifting 63kg in her third try, beating her very own Japan record. Though this was still not enough to get past the minimum entry standard of 65kg for Tokyo 2020, she seemed to be looking towards the future, telling us, “The problem wasn’t the weight—it was with my technique. I can already see myself lifting more than 65kg. I want to get up to 70kg by the end of this year.”

Yamamoto said she listened to the Japanese national anthem, “Kimigayo,” in order to heighten her motivation for next year

Dramatic Theatrical Elements Elevate the Athletes’ Motivations

Japanese para powerlifting star Odo of Men’s 88kg achieved a confident victory

The “test event” factor of this tournament led to many learning experiences for the athletes. Long-timer Odo said, “That feel when you’re on stage is incredible. I thought, man, if I’m able to compete next year to a packed venue, that’d be absolutely amazing.” Indeed, many of the athletes were very happy about the theatrical elements of the tournament, which heightened their emotion and motivation, and how close they felt to the spectators.

The theatrical elements were a big hit with the foreign athletes as well, with Ghazouani Souhad (France) of Women’s 73kg praising the tournament saying, “The tournament operation was amazing.”

Ghazouani Souhad was crowned champion of Women’s 73kg

One such theatrical element, and one implemented for the first time in Japan, is an animated video that plays after each of an athlete’s attempts, that informs the audience whether or not the attempt was successful. There is also a camera on the ceiling that captures the athletes’ facial expressions while on-stage and beams the footage out onto a large screen, so that the audience can really feel the tension and intensity in the athletes as they make their attempts.

Animated videos were beamed onto a large screen, making it easy for the audience to see what the judgment was

In terms of facilities, there were many athletes that voiced concern as to the relative lack of barrier-free bathrooms. Nishizaki of Men’s 49kg expressed his own concern, saying, “There’s only one such bathroom near the venue. I don’t think this will be enough for the real thing.” Though the stands are well-designed in the sense that there is a large wheelchair area, the prevailing view seemed to be that one wheelchair-oriented bathroom was simply “not enough” for Tokyo 2020.

Susumu Yoshida, Director of the Japanese Para Powerlifting Federation said, “I think there are a lot of issues and we’re still not satisfied, but we want to listen to the athletes’ opinions and turn them into improvements for the venue as a whole.”

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by Kato Yoshio

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