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Return of the Japan Para Athletics Championships! How It Happened and What It Means

No spectators. Limited media. Frequent disinfecting of tools by staff members. Things looked vastly different from usual. To the athletes, however, the most important thing was getting started again.

On September 5 and 6, the Japan Para Athletics Championships were held in Kumagaya City, Saitama. It was the first time in approximately half a year that a major parasports tournament was held in Japan, and it provided athletes with an opportunity to resume competing. (Click here for a report on the tournament)

With the spread of COVID-19, the entire sports world suspended its activities. Especially in parasports, some athletes are at risk of falling seriously ill if they contract the novel coronavirus. Many tournaments were therefore forced into being postponed or canceled ever since the 2020 Japan Para Championships Boccia held at the end of February. Against such a backdrop, the return of the Japan Para Athletics Championships must have been a ray of hope for many athletes aiming to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, which have been delayed to next year. We talked to the organizers who made the decision to hold the tournament about what sort of precautions they took. We also talked to the athletes and asked how they felt.

No spectators were in the bleachers, which were turned into seats for the media and staff members

The Athletes’ Opinions Swayed the Decision to Hold the Tournament

“This is the first major athletics tournament that’s being restarted, before even the JAAF Athletics Championships for able-bodied athletes. So we are determined to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.”

After the first day of the tournament, reporters asked why spectators were not allowed in. Toshihito Mitsui, President of Japan Para Athletics (hereafter “JPA”), gave them the simple answer above. He said their focus was to provide an opportunity for the athletes to compete in earnest. With that as the main objective, the organizers decided to turn their full attention to ensuring a safe tournament without any spectators.

Japan Para Athletics President Toshihito Mitsui explained the steps they took to hold the tournament

The Japan Para Athletics Championships were originally scheduled for May, but the organizers announced the tournament’s postponement in April. It was then rescheduled for September, but in the weeks leading up to it, the number of COVID-19 cases (which had been suppressed for while) rose again, leading many to fear for the tournament. However, in early August, JPA announced that it would be held as planned. According to Mitsui, they held multiple online discussions with the federation’s Medical Committee, comprised of medical specialists, on how to safely hold the tournament.

Meetings with other committees also took place, and among them, discussions with the Athletes’ Committee (established last spring) played a large role in JPA’s decision to go forward with holding the tournament. Toru Suzuki—Vice Chairman of the Athletes’ Committee and a member of the Japanese delegation to Tokyo 2020, which will be his sixth consecutive Paralympic Games—made the following comments:
“I think many athletes were gutted by the cancellation of the Japan Para Athletics Championships, which were scheduled to be held at the new Japan National Stadium (in May). But the organizers were already working to find a way to somehow hold the tournament. (During the deliberations) they asked the Athletes’ Committee for opinions, so from the standpoint of athletes, we said we wanted the Championships to be held with safety precautions firmly in place.”

Tournament organizers wearing masks and disinfecting starting blocks

Managing the Health Conditions of All Participating Athletes

Athletes who will hopefully see success at Tokyo 2020 showed outstanding performances. Both Maya Nakanishi, a long jumper with prosthesis legs who jumped 5.70 meters, and Tadashi Horikoshi, a visually impaired runner who ran the10,000-meter race in 32 minutes and 23.61 seconds, set new Asian records by overwriting the ones they previously held. JPA Chairman Akemi Masuda was thrilled by the many excellent results and said she believed it was the athletes’ way of saying thank you.

One of the conditions for holding the tournament was to require all participating athletes, organizers, media members, sponsors and anyone else entering the venue to record their temperatures and health management for two weeks leading up to the day of the event. While JPA based their standards on the Japan Association of Athletics Federations’ guidelines for resuming activities, which state to monitor health conditions for a week, they decided to be extra careful and require two weeks.

Athletes checked in one by one and received alcohol disinfectant photo by JAPAN PARA ATHLETICS

Furthermore, to heighten awareness of preventing the spread of the virus, JPA had all participants sign an agreement saying the organizers held no responsibility for any COVID-19 infections that may occur. Mitsui said, “We believed a heightened awareness among the athletes was a crucial pre-tournament condition for resuming sports events.” Guides and other sports assistants as well as caretakers were likewise required to sign the agreement.

On the day of the event, everyone entering the venue had their temperatures checked and only those who received a wristband at the reception were allowed to come and go. Masks were naturally required and athletes and organizers were each given a bottle of alcohol disinfectant. Organizers were also provided with face shields, which they wore with their masks as they guided the athletes on the track.

The number of reporters was limited and press interviews were held by setting up acrylic barriers and mics

Photographing and filming by the media inside the track were also limited and post-tournament press interviews were held by setting up acrylic barriers and maintaining a distance between the athletes and reporters. Athletes with heavy impairments, who are at risk of falling seriously ill if they catch COVID-19 were unable to directly answer questions, but measures were taken so that their spokespersons could provide comments.

Suzuki said, “I feel bad that people had to wear masks and face shields in the heat and that the media weren’t allowed to shoot up-close to the athletes. But as an athlete, I’m extremely grateful that we were able to compete.”

He went on to say he hoped they would be able to perform closer to the media at the Kanto Para Athletics Championships in November. As his words indicate, we will no doubt need to find a way to hold tournaments going forward in a manner that is appropriate in a world still struggling to contain the novel coronavirus.

Reporters interviewed athletes while maintaining a distance; as the first major tournament to be resumed, it drew a lot of media attention

Challenges Unique to Holding a Tournament Without Spectators

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games will be coming up next summer. With the possibility of it being held without spectators, long jumper Atsushi Yamamoto asked the few people nearby to clap a rhythm and timed his steps to the beat, which was far quieter than usual. “I could still hear the claps well, even with fewer people,” he said, but added, “I’d still prefer to have an audience.”

Furthermore, previous tournaments used to stream videos online, but a lack of funds resulted in only one of the two days being streamed this time. Having no spectators raises the need for live streaming all the more and many athletes expressed their dissatisfaction and requests going forward. It goes without saying that the success of future tournaments depends on thinking out of the box and improving delivery to allow viewers to feel as if they are watching right from the bleachers.

The Japan Para Athletics Championships is the first of many other national parasports tournaments that will slowly be returning. Organizers and athletes are not the only ones who need to make adjustments. Spectators, too, have to find new ways to cheer everyone on as we work our way forward and count down the days to Tokyo 2020.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

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