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Para-Athlete Training Environments: Why Top Para-Athletes Choose to “Go Pro”

It may seem to most as if the days when para-athletes called for improvements to their training environment, and to be treated on par with Olympians and with the Olympic Games, are in the past. In recent days, what with support from the government, companies, etc., it seems para-athletes have been afforded the various environments they need to focus on their training. The relative ease with which para-athletes have acquired sponsors has even been referred to as a “Para Bubble,” with the expectation, of course, that this bubble will burst following the end of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Top professional para-athletes, however, have moved to question these developments. We followed these athletes, who operate in part as the “face of the Paralympic Games,” as they carve a new path for future generations of para-athletes.

Wheelchair Tennis Legend: A Case of the “Model” Professional Para-Athletes

It was April 2009, and Shingo Kunieda of wheelchair tennis was holding a press conference in Tokyo to announce his decision to “go pro”—to become a professional wheelchair tennis player. At the press conference were eight TV cameras and over 50 reporters—at the time, a remarkable number for a parasport press conference. The news was reported in the day’s sports coverage.

“I understand it’ll be difficult for me to make a living off of just tennis. But still, I want to take on this challenge, and try to be the best I can.” So said the Paralympic gold medalist, posture straight and his head held high. Three months later, he signed a membership contract with Uniqlo that made the company his main sponsor. Having established the base he needed to focus on his training, he went on to win his second consecutive gold medal in the Singles event at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. This not only had an enormous impact on the Japanese parasports world; it also proved to society that it was possible for para-athletes to make a living off of parasports alone—from prize money, sponsorships, and more.

Kunieda, who worked as a staff member at a university, decided to go pro after winning his gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, saying, “I want to be in an environment where I can really focus on my tennis”
photo by Asuka Senaga

Athletics Para-Athletes, Pioneers of Going Pro

There were numerous para-athletes who had gone pro even before Kunieda. Wakako Tsuchida, wheelchair athlete and gold medalist in both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games, is considered the pioneer of professional para-athletes in Japan, having been sponsored by a company since 2001. Tsuchida is enjoying considerable success even now, and is aiming to compete in two events (para athletics and triathlon) at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Even she, however, says that the acquisition of sponsorships has been a constant source of anxiety as she has gone through the ups and downs of her sports.

Maya Nakanishi (center) at the Dubai 2019 World Para Athletics Championships, where she became the world champion of long jump, 10 years after becoming a professional athlete
photo by Getty Images Sport

Maya Nakanishi, who became a professional athletics athlete in 2009, is another who has experienced the various tribulations that come from this life. At one point, in 2011, she had even had to give up competing in the world championships due to a lack of funds. Nowadays, she has sponsorship contracts with seven companies, not including her suppliers, and has become a “model” case for professional para-athletes. Reality has been harsh even for her, however. Case in point: since she was crowned world champion of long jump in 2019—a long-awaited achievement—she has yet to be able to find a new sponsor.

Still, however, she feels incredibly supported by her sponsors, who have carried on sponsoring her even during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I feel like my connections to the companies that have supported me all this time have gotten stronger,” she said.

Atsushi Yamamoto, who, like Nakanishi, is a long jumper with a prosthetic leg, also went pro in 2017 in the hopes of becoming a Summer and Winter Paralympian. The following year, in 2018, he achieved his goal of competing in the snowboard event of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Paralympic Games, thus elevating his status as a para-athlete. He is also active in the media, and has even released the monetary amount of his membership contract with Shinnihonjusetsu, as well as the prize money for winning a gold medal. In doing so, he is showing up-and-coming new athletes one way in which to play parasports, and motivating them in the process.

Atsushi Yamamoto, talking to the younger athletes at a training camp held in Yomitan Village, Okinawa Prefecture
photo by X-1

No Need to Go Pro in Team Sports?

On the other hand, there are very few professional para-athletes in team sports who earn a living without being employed by a company. This may be due to a Japanese government policy designed to drive employment of people with disabilities—a policy that applies to individual sports as well. This policy places fines on companies that do not meet a certain threshold of employment for people with disabilities, resulting in an increasing number of companies employing para-athletes (“corporate athletes”) as part of their efforts to hire people with disabilities.

When the environment surrounding para-athletes really began to change, however, was in 2013, when the Tokyo Paralympic Games were announced. For wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball in particular, there were so many new corporate athletes that weekday training camps for the Japan national team—virtually unheard of before London 2012—had become fairly commonplace in the lead-up to Rio 2016. Nowadays, para-athletes are given more time to train, and many companies even provide athletes with funds for their activities, including for travel and equipment. There is thus very little reason for many of these athletes to “go pro” to focus on their training.

One para-athlete, however, is making waves in this front. Hiroaki Kozai, the only wheelchair basketball player in Japan to go pro, moved to Germany after graduating from the University of Illinois in the U.S., and competed in the German wheelchair basketball league Bundesliga as a professional wheelchair basketball player. Though he is now in Japan in order to focus on training with the Japan national team, he had, in 2013, managed to break into a European league as a professional para-athlete—something unheard of in Japan at the time. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for para-athletes to go abroad for training. Kozai, however, had gone pro with the sole intent of getting better at his sport—even if it made his life less stable—and the confidence and pride from that achievement is apparent from him even today.

Hiroaki Kozai is the only professional wheelchair basketball player in Japan (Photo: 2019 Asia Oceania Championships)
photo by X-1

Sponsor Companies and Their Passion for Parasports

“I want to promote parasports, make it something more recognized in society.” So said Tomoki Sato, world record holder of four events in para athletics, in a press conference this February, announcing his decision to become a professional para-athlete. This decision resulted in him dropping out of his corporate team ahead of the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Why would a gold medal contender for Tokyo 2020 do such a thing in the middle of a pandemic? This was the question posed by Morisawa Inc., who later moved to sign a membership contract with Sato. The company, which is a sponsor for the Japanese Para-Sports Association and for various parasport associations, had actually considered hiring corporate athletes in the past. When they were considering this, however, in 2019, the accomplished athletes were already working for other companies.

Ayumu Shiraishi, who serves as the leader of the Tokyo 2020 Promotion Office at Morisawa, had become captivated by the depth of parasports, as he went around as corporate representative to various parasport tournaments, including the Japan Para Athletics Championships. “If only we could work with Sato to promote parasports, what with Tokyo 2020,” he thought. Over time, he began to want to sign a contract with Sato as an athlete—not just to make a contribution to society.

Tomoki Sato racing through the tracks with “Morisawa” emblazoned on his jacket (Photo: Tokyo Athletics Association Middle Distance Challenge 2021)
photo by X-1

To get approval from within the company, Shiraishi gave a presentation on the value of advertising at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Still, he said, it was not an easy thing to get the executive committee to approve this contract with Sato.

“Sato is very much an athlete. He’s very straightforward, and he doesn’t really flatter people. Of course, I didn’t know all that then, but… Some people were against it, like, ‘We’re sponsoring other parasports, and we’re going to add another one?’ which was really painful to hear.”

After considerable debate, Morisawa decided to sign a multi-year membership contract with Sato.

There have been more and more para-athletes going pro in advance of Tokyo 2020. This, however, is not simply because these athletes want better training environments. It is also because the players and corporate staff feel passionate about wanting to change the state of parasports in Japan.

With the Tokyo Paralympic Games approaching, and with the COVID-19 pandemic still looming large, it is difficult to see where the Japanese parasports world is headed. However, it goes without saying that the sight of these para-athletes, taking on the challenge of going “pro,” is elevating the value of parasports.

text by Asuka Senaga
key visual by Morisawa Inc.

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