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A Look Back at Mami Tani’s Iconic Speech: The Power of Sports in Our Current Crisis

The novel coronavirus outbreak that has swept through the world has brought with it considerable doubt and uncertainty as to society as a whole. How will we get through this crisis? Perhaps a hint to that question lies with the power of para athletes—the mental strength that allows them to overcome difficulties, and the determination that allows them to push past their limits and not give up.

Here, we look back on the past speeches of Mami Tani, a three-time Paralympian in athletics/long jump, who while working on recovery efforts for the Great East Japan Earthquake, also contributed to the bid for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games/Paralympic Games.

Athletes Each Doing What They Can for the Crisis

The novel coronavirus outbreak has led to a series of cancellations and postponements in the sports industry, with many para athletes losing access to training sites and training opportunities. For many athletes, the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games/Paralympic Games has also raised a variety of issues—for example, problems with physical maintenance and funding.

There have also been reports that Tokyo 2020 may be cancelled in its entirety if it cannot be held in summer 2021 due to coronavirus concerns, as no further postponement is possible. This news has left many athletes in the lurch, unable to figure out when this chaos will end.

It is also true, however, that para athletes are uniquely skilled at handling these sorts of crises. Para athletes, many of whom have lost functionality in parts of their bodies due to accidents or illness, and who have faced all kinds of societal barriers throughout their lives, are used to thinking about life in terms of what they can do versus what they can’t, and have learned how to make the best of their situation.

Athletes, including Hiroyuki Misaka, former member of the Japan national wheelchair rugby team, posted a message on YouTube

Paralympian Hiroyuki Misaka of wheelchair rugby, for example, has established a project called “Power of Sports: Overcoming Difficulty,” which aims to promote messages of strength during these trying times. The project features compilations of video sent in from all over the sports world, from J.League players to para athletes. The first compilation was released on March 22, with eight compilations now available on YouTube.

Daniel Dias of Brazil, who has won 24 medals in swimming at the Paralympic Games, and who has limb deficiencies, also posted footage of him training while holding his child. Hiroaki Kozai, who has lower limb deficiencies and is Japan’s only professional wheelchair basketball player, has also posted videos of his core training routine at home on social media.

Some of these have been joint efforts by the Olympic and Paralympic Games. A joint project by the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) and the Japanese Paralympic Committee (JPC) had athletes posting their thoughts to social media, with the hash tags “#Staystrong” and “#いまスポーツにできること (#WhatSportsCanDoNow).” Athletes that had qualified for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, like Monika Seryu of canoe sprint and Mitsuya Tanaka of taekwondo, posted footage of them spending their time at home.

And there’s now even a light of hope at the end of the tunnel—a chance that parasports can resume.

The Ajinomoto National Training Center (NTC), which has served as the base of training for many top athletes, and which had been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, has gradually begun resuming operations since the state of emergency was lifted. Once the NTC is fully open, athletes who have qualified for or who are working to qualify for Tokyo 2020 will regain their training sites, and will once again be able to heighten their motivation when it comes to their sports.

The sense of doubt and uncertainty that has pervaded the sports world is reminiscent in part of what occurred after the Great East Japan Earthquake nine years ago. In a country mired in grief and trapped in despair, many people in the sports world—including athletes—had struggled with the question, “What can I do for this current moment?”

An Iconic Speech for These Times

Mami Tani’s final presentation as a Paralympian photo by Getty Images Sport

There is one Paralympian in particular, however, that has gone out to explain the experiences she’s had in her own words—Mami Tani (maiden name: Sato), who contributed to the success of the bid for Tokyo 2020.

On September 7, 2013, Tani participated in the 125th International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session held in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, and went on-stage as the final presenter for the Tokyo bid. Her speech lasted roughly four minutes. In the first half, she discussed how, at 19 years old, she lost her right leg below the knee to an osteogenic sarcoma, how at one point she had given up on life, and how sports (athletics) had saved her from her despair. In the second half, she told the IOC and the world at large about the struggles her family, who live in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, had faced as victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and discussed the role that sports had played in the recovery efforts at the disaster sites.

Tani’s speech is said to have captured the hearts of the IOC members, who were responsible for determining the host city, and played a major role in Tokyo winning the bid for 2020.

Tani competed in three Paralympic Games for athletics/long jump (Photo is from London 2012) photo by X-1

Then came the 11th of March 2011. The tsunami hit my hometown. For six days, I did not know if my family was still alive. And when I did find them, my personal happiness was nothing compared to the sadness of the nation.

I collected messages from schools and took them home, and shared with people my own experiences. I also took food supplies, and other athletes did the same. Together we organized sports activities to help restore [the] confidence [of the people who were affected].

Immediately after the disaster, the priority was supplying the people who were affected with necessities like food and medical supplies, and there wasn’t much that could be done in the world of sports. But as time went on, people started asking for recreation, for opportunities to exercise, and the mere presence of the athletes, and all their knowledge about sports, became a source of support for those who had been affected by the disaster.

Tani, who witnessed this process both as an athlete and as part of the families affected by the disaster, stood up on stage a year and a half after the disaster, and, as part of her presentation for the Tokyo bid, gave precious insight into what had occurred there.

At times, she seemed overcome by all that she’d felt at the time of the disaster, her voice choking up. She concluded the speech, however, with these words.

Tani gave a speech on the power of sports at the IOC Session photo by Getty Images Sport

Only then did I see the full power of sports. To create new dreams and smiles. To give hope. To bring people together. More than 200 athletes, Japanese and international, making almost 1,000 visits to the affected area, and inspiring more than 50,000 children.

What we have seen is the impact of the Olympic values as never before in Japan. And what the country has witnessed is that those precious values—excellence, friendship, and respect—can be so much more than just words.

Tani went on to get married in September 2014, and had a child the next year. In 2016, she switched over to triathlon. She’d since overcome all kinds of hurdles, and is now working to compete in her fourth Paralympic Games—her first for triathlon.

Tani is currently working to compete in her fourth Paralympic Games photo by X-1

Though society as a whole is working to recover from the unprecedented effects of the coronavirus crisis, there is always the risk of a resurgence. One thing is for sure, however—that the return of sports in the day-to-day landscape will return joy and a sense of normalcy to people’s lives. Indeed, we have only just begun to see the power that athletes have to bring that kind of happiness back into the world.

text by TEAM A
key visual by Getty Images Sport

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