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【Athletics】33rd Shizuoka International Meet: Why Yamamoto Continues Running as Athletics Pioneer

The 33rd Shizuoka International Meet (JAAF National GP Series 4), which also served as a qualifying trial for this summer’s World Para Athletics Championships London 2017, was held on May 3 at Shizuoka ECOPA Stadium (Fukuroi City, Shizuoka Prefecture). Men’s para-100 meters was held as a special event at the meet. Five upper and lower limb amputee sprinters, including a Rio Paralympic medalist, took part in the race, which took place before the large number of track and field fans

Atsushi Yamamoto (T42 / single above-knee amputation), who won silver in the long jump and bronze in the 4 x 100 relay (T42-T47) at the Rio Paralympics, was among the competitors. Holder of the para-100 meters Japan record (12.61 seconds), Mr. Yamamoto clocked 13.28 seconds in Shizuoka. He said, “I’m not totally happy with my record. But the season is just beginning. I’ll work to get my condition at its best by the world championships,” he added with a positive attitude.

Mr. Yamamoto responding to questions from the press. He was born in Shizuoka Prefecture and has been with the Suzuki Hamamatsu Athlete Club since 2008. photo by Kyoko Hoshino

Advocates the Holding of Para-sports Events

In the spring of 2000, when he was in 11th grade, Mr. Yamamoto lost his left leg from the thigh down in a traffic accident. He started using a prosthetic leg and had begun studies to obtain a license as a prosthetist when he encountered athletics. In April 2004, he received sports recommendation admittance to Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences Faculty of Physical Education. Mr. Yamamoto trained alongside non-disabled team mates on the school’s track team. He majored in sports biomechanics and used himself as a subject of experiments while studying theory and carrying out research. Meanwhile, he broke numerous records as an ace above-knee-amputee athlete.

In particular, he won the silver in the long jump at Beijing 2008, which was his first Paralympic Games. He became the first Japanese amputee competing in para-athletics to win a Paralympic medal. He also won two consecutive World Para Athletics Championships—first in 2013, followed by 2015—in the long jump. In 2016, Mr. Yamamoto established a world record (6.56 meters). Although that world record was later broken by a foreign athlete, he extended his personal best to 6.62 meters. He sadly came in second place in the 2016 Rio Paralympics. He said at the time, “In Beijing, when I got the silver, it was like, ‘Wow, I won a medal!’ Here in Rio, it’s a silver medal that I won after aiming for the gold for eight years, so it’s disappointedly frustrating.” He will aim to win back his position as champion at the World Para Athletics Championships in July.

His motto is to try whatever he wants to and to keep on launching challenges. While continually aiming for a top position as an athlete, he is also enthusiastic about carrying out PR activities for para-sports as a whole. In fact, it was Mr. Yamamoto’s zeal that made the para-event happen at the Shizuoka International Meet mentioned earlier.

Many para-events are held around the world at tournaments for the non-disabled as an exhibition event. However, Japan does not have a history of doing this. Even if held at a tournament for non-disabled athlete, the para-events were usually a one-time affair. Mr. Yamamoto decided that he wanted Japan to hold para-events as part of regular tournaments to help raise awareness of para-sports. As mentioned earlier, he is affiliated with Suzuki. That was why he started by lobbying the organizers of the Shizuoka International Meet, a tournament for which Suzuki was a co-sponsor. Thanks to his efforts, para-athletic events were first held at this tournament in 2013. It has been held every year since, with 2017 marking the fifth tournament with a para-athletic event.

The number of tournaments holding para-athletic events is steadily increasing. Mr. Yamamoto said, “It’s not easy making precedents in Japan. But, the good thing is, once you do, it keeps going. I think that we were able to make a good precedent through the Shizuoka International Meet. It’s gradually spreading to other tournaments. I think things are going in a good direction.”

Mr. Yamamoto’s career as a para-athlete can be described in one word: “pioneering.” He tested leading-edge training theories and methods on himself, bringing about wonderful results. Additionally, he gives lectures, takes part in events that allow people to experience para-sports, participates in other events held to discover athletes, and makes guest appearances on television. In April 2017, he even took up the post of visiting associate professor at his alma mater—the Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences. Mr. Yamamoto said that through special lectures and such, he aspires to communicate to students his experiences in the work he has been involved in.

In February this year, he also entered a para-snowboard championship for the first time, winning in his class. Mr. Yamamoto surprised everyone by expressing his desire to be in both the summer and winter Paralympic Games. Actually, he has been snowboarding since 7th grade, keeping up the sport as a hobby even after he started wearing a prosthetic. His love of snowboarding was rekindled when snowboarding became an official Paralympic event in Sochi 2014. He became a Japan Para-Ski Federation-certified snowboard athlete in April. Although he is making a challenge as an athlete, part of his reason for doing so is to increase the attention being given to para-sports. His hope is that he will create a buzz since he is already known for having reached a top position in athletics. Mr. Yamamoto wants to increase the number of para-athletes and para-sports fans through such energetic activities, fill Paralympics venues to the brim, and lead the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games to success.

What Are His Reasons for Wanting to Stay a Strong Athlete at All Times?

Mr. Yamamoto’s role model is Toru Suzuki, who wears a prosthetic on his right leg (T44 / single below-knee amputation). Since becoming Japan’s first amputee athletics Paralympian at Sydney 2000, he competed in the high jump in five Paralympics, winning places consecutively. Mr. Suzuki is another pioneer. He became the first amputee-athlete to sign a professional contract and became the coach of his alma mater’s handball club.

Mr. Yamamoto said, “To me, Toru is a para-athletics legend. I feel like I have been following in his footsteps forever. He was all alone and in the front lines as an athlete with a prosthetic limb. I then joined him. I want to make sure that new people will follow. I don’t want to let that be interrupted.”

There has indeed been an increase in people younger than Mr. Yamamoto who admire and aspire to be like him. Mikio Ikeda (T44), who is still a university student, for example. Originally a basketball player, he went to have his prosthesis fixed after it broke during practice. There, he saw a photo of Mr. Yamamoto running powerfully on his prosthesis. He was riveted by the photo and converted to athletics. Mr. Ikeda’s talent bloomed in the short-distance sprint. He has competed consecutively at the Shizuoka International Meet. This year, he became a Japan Para Athletics-certified athlete in the relay for the first time.

With Mr. Yamamoto as the anchor, Japan’s relay team won its first bronze medal at the Rio Paralympics. Mr. Ikeda said, “I think that I will be taking over Atsushi’s position. I feel pressure for sure, but what I need to do is achieve good results. I believe that what’s important is that I not just follow him from behind but overtake him—that would be my way of expressing my gratitude.”

If asked, Mr. Yamamoto is known to willingly offer advice from the perspective of an athlete or a prosthetist. He says that one of his future goals is to become a leader and pass his experience on to others. “It would make me very happy if one of the athletes that I help won a gold medal at a Paralympics.

He added, “The thing is, I don’t think people would want me to lead unless I was a strong athlete myself. That is why I want to stay a strong athlete at all times.”

He will start by achieving the feat of winning his third consecutive World Championships this summer so that he can remain in the lead for a while longer.

text by Kyoko Hoshino