Todd Nicholson - Part II | Olympic and Paralympic “Oneness” as the Key to Strengthening Ability
*This article is a continuation from Todd Nicholson - Part I | Parasports in Japan, Post-2020: Some Suggestions from Canada
――What sort of strengthening do you think is important?
A top-tier athlete, to me, is an athlete that’s strong mentally. Their performance in the sport is obviously important, but that’s only about 20% of it. The rest of it, the 80%, are all things you can train for outside of the arena. This is stuff like physical management, prevention of injuries and illness, research into strategies, and working on your mental strength and stress resistance.
In other words, 80% of training is the same for people with and without impairment. Mental training, for example, can be offered in the same place by the same person. Only 20% of training needs to be divided by Olympics and Paralympics. Sharing our resources as much as possible should make it easier for us to limit any discrepancies between the Paralympics and the Olympics.
――You’re saying the key to strengthening Team Canada was Olympic and Paralympic “oneness.”
In Canada, we have a facility called the Canadian Sport Institute (CSI) for our top athletes, and the Director of High Performance Sport, who helps lead the organization, is the same for able-bodied basketball and wheelchair basketball, and they have the same scientific training staff for able-bodied sports and parasports, for example. Not everything is the same, but they do share their resources.
――What other kinds of support is there for top athletes?
This is something that I’d like to see Japan push for as well, but for a while there’s been a system in Canada where top athletes can receive support funds directly, without having to go through their sports associations. Through this, athletes who are medal contenders are able to receive financial assistance with the support of the government, companies, etc.
We also have a system where student athletes are able to have their tuition waived or subsidized, so that they can balance their athletic and academic careers. For athletes to be able to compete at that high of a level, I don’t think subsidies just for athletic efforts are enough.
―― Canada provides a wide range of support that’s not just financial assistance.
You also need to consider what kind of career an athlete will have after they retire, and set up a plan for their future. I personally serve as a mentor for seven Olympians and Paralympians, giving them advice as to what they could do after they retire from sports. I think these kinds of efforts are important also for keeping promising athletes from leaving the world of sports.
Another thing you can’t forget to do is providing athletes’ families and coaches with information. If they come across financial difficulties, you have to let them know where they can receive subsidies. You can’t give them all of the information every time, so you act as the sort of mediator, directing them to the right information channels. I personally know what it’s like to be an athlete, and to have good people around me, and so I have a lot of passion for this kind of research, and I’m hoping that I—as a sort of information hub—can be of help to the training and cultivation of these athletes.
――In addition to offering this kind of information to the athletes that have come after you, you’re also working to promote Canada and its success with parasports to other countries—as with this interview, for example.
There’s actually a reason for that, and it’s that I want there to be more athletes who get to go into battle under the same conditions as the world’s top athletes—for all athletes to be able to access the best equipment and resources. Don’t you think the winner of that sort of battle would be the true champion?
People tend to believe the most important thing is just getting better results. But if a gold medalist were to make it top-secret what equipment they used, people would start saying, “Well, they won because they’re using some sort of technology no one’s ever used before.”
And it’s not just equipment. The reality is that there are significant discrepancies even in the general resources that athletes have access to. I was lucky in that I had people around me that could teach me how to use the sledge, how to use my body, even how to strengthen my mental state and go into tournaments in the right frame of mind. That’s why I was able to become what they called the “best player” of my age. But it’s not like that for someone who was just handed a wheelchair 20 minutes ago. That’s why, technically speaking, I’m only the “best player” in terms of the people who were afforded the environment to get into the sport.
Real battle requires you to give your all. If we’re able to offer support to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate in parasports, whether due to financial issues or the lack of a training environment, we should see more high-level athletes, and thus more high-level matches that are exciting and fun to watch. That’s why I want to work towards realizing this mission.
Learning from Canada’s Example
――How do you feel about the discovery of new athletes?
Olympic and Paralympic organizations tend to be separate in Japan. In Canada, if you decide you want to play ice hockey, you go to the same organization, called Hockey Canada, regardless of whether or not you have an impairment. It makes it very obvious where to go if you’re involved in a car accident that leaves you with an impairment, that makes you realize you can’t play hockey the same way anymore. That’s one big difference between Canada and Japan.
Another difficulty in Japan is the problem with facilities. People with impairment don’t all live in the same area—they live all over the place. But in Japan, if an athlete with an impairment decides they want to play a sport, they have to ask where the nearest parasports center is, after which they’re directed to some facility far away from their house. I think it’d be better for them to be able to go to a sports center closer to where they are, especially since there are also all kinds of barriers impeding the way to these faraway facilities as well.
――It seems there’s still a lot Japan has to learn from more parasport-advanced countries.
What we’re envisioning right now in Canada is what’s called an ability center—a facility that covers not just sports, but also things like music, art, and life skills, for example cooking. This was an idea that came out of the Paralympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies—the idea that all of us, regardless of impairment, can exist without division, enjoying together activities that we previously conducted separately. I’m hoping that that’s where the world is headed.
PROFILE / Todd Nicholson
Born in Ottawa, Canada. Five-time Paralympian for ice sledge hockey (current para ice hockey). Won a bronze medal in Lillehammer 1994, a silver medal in Nagano 1998, a gold medal in Torino 2006, then retired after Vancouver 2010. Served as Chairperson of the IPC Athletes’ Council and Member of the IPC Governing Board from 2010 to 2017. Has served as the Chair of Own the Podium, an organization that works to strengthen the competitive ability of the Canada national team for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, since 2018.
text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1