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The Journey Towards Becoming a “Sports Kingdom”: Shizuoka Prefecture’s Grassroots Efforts

Shizuoka Prefecture, home of the cycling venue of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Though it’s true that many host towns are using Tokyo 2020 as an opportunity to implement policies that promote parasports, the grassroots efforts underway in Shizuoka Prefecture are particularly striking. Here, we introduce you to some of these efforts, led by the prefecture and its Paralympic athletes.

The Joy of Running on Leaf Springs

It was September 22, and running around the Konohana Arena of the Kusanagi Sports Complex were a number of boys—boys who had lost their legs in accidents, or through illness. They were participating in the Blade Running Clinic, run by Shizuoka Prefecture and the Shizuoka Prefecture Sports Association for People with Impairment. Ten prosthetics users got together with top athletes to try on sports prosthetics and learn the basics of how to run with them.

The event featured four athletes with prosthetic legs, including Atsushi Yamamoto (from Kakegawa City, Shizuoka Prefecture), athletics star and Tokyo 2020 medal contender. The novel coronavirus outbreak, and the consequent postponement of Tokyo 2020, meant that the event wasn’t the kind of triumphant, post-medal affair that it could’ve been. Despite that, however, the event was a resounding success—as evidenced by the joy on the participants’ faces as they raced around the arena with their sports prosthetics on for the first time.

Keita Sato (center) teaching kids how to use prosthetic legs

“That bouncy feel is something you don’t get with everyday prosthetics, so that’s something that’s probably really fun for them. Kids especially get used to prosthetic legs really quickly, so it’s best if you make it so they can put these on whenever they want to run, and just let them run.”
So said Yamamoto, who’d brought his own tools to the event to help the kids put on their prosthetic legs. His message was aimed not only towards the kids, but to the guardians who accompanied them.

The event, which also featured a talk show hosted by Olympian Dai Tamesue, was streamed live on the Internet.

The talk show featured an illustrious set of speakers, including Endo and Olympian Tamesue

Keita Sato (from Fujieda City, Shizuoka Prefecture), medalist in the 4 x 100m relay event of the Rio Paralympic Games, was involved in the event from the planning stages. He kept his sports prosthetics on even after the workshop was over, gazing happily at the children racing around the arena. He said, his voice filled with conviction, “There are similar kinds of sports prosthetic workshops hosted by manufacturers all over Japan, but I think this may be the first time a local government has held something like this. It’d be great if this could be a sort of gateway into further support from the local government, in terms of subsidies and insurance coverage for sports prosthetics.”

The goal of the event wasn’t just to unearth future Paralympians—it was to have kids with prosthetic legs understand that they too could experience the joys of running. Shogo Takagi, a fifth-year in an elementary school in Shimoda City, had his right leg amputated as a third-year due to an osteosarcoma. Since then, he said, he hadn’t played any sports. He tells us, however, “It was easier to run [using the sports prosthetics] than with my regular prosthetics.”

Atsushi Yamamoto, Rio 2016 silver medalist, also serves as a prosthetist

A Society Where Anyone Can Run

A girl, elementary schooler from Yaizu City, uses a prosthetic from the ankle down. To be able to run using a leaf spring*1, she needed to have a new socket made that would connect the stump to the sports prosthetic. She was, ultimately, unable to put on the leaf spring during the workshop. Ken Endo, the engineer in charge of making adjustments to the prosthetic legs, expressed his frustration about the matter, telling us, “We have to make it so everyone [even those with some other form of prosthetics (not below-knee or above-knee prosthetics)] can run. It’s something we need to address urgently.”

*1. Leaf spring: The spring portion of sports prosthetics, which converts the repulsive force generated when the user kicks the ground, into propulsive force

Running around the arena with the para-athletes

The girl’s mother, however, told us about her daughter, who plays volleyball, “I just wanted her to feel some hope. We’d never even considered getting a different prosthetic for sports before. The fact that the event was held by Shizuoka Prefecture, not Tokyo, meant we felt less of a hurdle in terms of participating, and we’re grateful to have been able to meet these famous Paralympians, like Yamamoto.”

The Blade Running Clinic also featured workshops for handbikes, tandem bikes, etc.

For amputees to start running, they need at the minimum an environment where they can access the expensive leaf springs they’d need, a prosthetist willing to support them, and instructors who could teach them how to run. The prefecture’s Sports Bureau is considering running the same kind of event—a sports prosthetic running event—next year as well.

Shizuoka Prefecture’s Various Efforts

Prosthetics workshops aren’t the only effort in place to drive up engagement for Tokyo 2020. Twelve para-athletes who competed in Rio 2016, and who are from Shizuoka Prefecture, have been appointed the Parasport Cheer Squad in advance of Tokyo 2020. They give lectures at junior high and high schools in the prefecture, and have gone around to 19 special education schools—about half of the special ed schools in the prefecture—to interact with those with impairment in the prefecture.

Tomoki Sato gave a lecture at South Shizuoka Special Education School on the importance of fulfilling one’s dreams for oneself

The prefecture is also providing support to highly competitive Paralympians, as part of their sports policy under the “Sports Kingdom Shizuoka” banner. The designated athletes—who all either live in or are from the prefecture—are a talented bunch that includes Tomoki Sato of athletics (from Fujieda City, Shizuoka Prefecture), Keiko Sugiura of cycling (from Kakegawa City, Shizuoka Prefecture), and Reo Fujimoto of wheelchair basketball (Shimada City, Shizuoka Prefecture). While they do receive support as athletes, they are also expected to achieve results, in much the same way as Olympic athletes.

The prefecture is also putting significant effort into popularizing the cycling event, which, for Tokyo 2020, will be held at the Fuji International Speedway and the Izu Velodrome in the prefecture. They hosted Japan’s first tandem cycling tournament in 2019, giving students with visual impairment the opportunity to race around a cycling track. There’s another cycling event planned for 2021.

Keiko Sugiura, from Shizuoka Prefecture, cycling on the Fuji International Speedway

This doesn’t extend just to top athletes. The Wakafuji Sports Tournament, a parasport tournament designed for casual participation, and which has seen its 21st installment, has also helped support the cause by offering people with impairment an opportunity to get into sports.

Shizuoka Prefecture, with its advanced parasport policies and its variety of parasport-related efforts, will continue to drive up engagement for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, and the level of interest and passion for all kinds of parasports within the prefecture.

text by Asuka Senaga
photo by X-1

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