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【ParaSports】The First Paralympic Sport-Matching Athlete Identification Program

There have been more para-athlete identification events in recent years, in preparation of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. While most of these events are designed for trying out different sports, the Japan Sport Council (JSC) drew attention with a completely new concept called the "National Talent Identification and Development (NTID) Paralympic Verification Program." The six qualifiers (four men, two women) were announced on March 6.

The NTID events were originally launched by JSC for Olympic sports, one year after the Sport Basic Plan came out in 2012. It is designed to collect skilled athletes from all over Japan and discover talented individuals with potential of competing internationally, based on scientific data such as physical ability and strength. Each person is matched to the most appropriate sports federation, where they are trained to be top athletes. It is a program designed to match (transfer) individuals to his/her optimum sporting event. This was the twelfth NTID for Olympic sports.

This time the event included Paralympic sports for the first time, applying know-how accumulated throughout the years in order to discover promising para athletes who can be active in and beyond 2020.

Applicants were evaluated based on both physical and mental criteria

According to JSC, NTID is structured around three processes: the "identification" and "verification" processes conducted by JSC, and the "development" process conducted by the respective sports federations. For this event, 55 applicants were narrowed down to 48 with an initial screening of disabilities and sports experience. The selection included third year junior high school students to 39-year-old athletes.

Of the 48 selected applicants, 40 went through the "identification" process last November. Five sports federations (athletics, boccia, powerlifting, swimming and blind marathon) attended to watch the performance of the applicants. Classification committee members and experts such as prosthetists and orthotists attended as observers, as did some Olympic sports federations.

A test in which applicants spoke about their sport

The "identification" process includes body measurements and basic physical fitness tests such as the 30-meter race, ball-throwing and long-distance running. There were also specific tests for each disability, such as jumping and wheelchair maneuvering. In addition, each applicant's determination and mental preparedness were tested. For this test, the applicants were given 30 seconds to speak into a camera regarding their goals and reason for applying for the program. Some said they wanted to learn about their abilities or find out their potential, while others said they wanted to take on new challenges in a new sport or drive forward self-development.

The applicants were evaluated according to the collected data as well as the judgment of the sports federations, based on both physical and mental criteria, and 29 were selected for the next "verification" process held in mid-January. In this process, applicants were assigned to a sport based on their "identification" results and took tests more specific to each sport. Several applicants took tests for multiple sports.

Because potential abilities cannot be uncovered in a single "identification" process, it is sometimes held over multiple sessions with an interval of weeks or months. This time, two evaluations were held approximately three weeks apart.

The first evaluation included a physical ability test accommodating the characteristics of each sport. There were also interviews with the sports federations, during which applicants were given assignments such as special training. At the second evaluation, applicants took the same physical ability test to assess their improvement. Criteria for further selection included whether the applicant is physically suited to the sport or event, their potential for improvement, and their mental endurance in being able to do the assigned training.

Watching the future of the qualifiers, and hoping for the continuance of the program

Six athletes (average age 25) were selected through this first-time identification and verification process. The next development process will generally be conducted at each sports federation.

Susumu Yoshida, Chairman of the Japan Para Powerlifting Federation which took on four of the six athletes, said, "We found good athletes, and I am satisfied." Although it is difficult to identify potential abilities in a short period of time, the powerlifting federation looked at the results of the 30-meter wheelchair race because powerlifting requires extreme explosive power. Applicants also did bench presses and actually lifted barbells, so they were able to see their potential in muscle strength and feel to a certain extent.

The four athletes that qualified for powerlifting are now development athletes for 2017, and will receive help in preparing their training environments, such as invitations to training camps and financial assistance for tours. Chairman Yoshida said, "I am really looking forward (to the qualifiers) and I hope we can get them stronger."

Mitsuyo Matsumoto, qualifier for the blind marathon

It is important to continue watching the NTID qualifiers as they train for the 2020 Tokyo Games and get results. We still have insufficient data on para athletes, such as what evaluation criteria are most valid. The characteristics and classifications of each disability present some differences from Olympic athletes. By reviewing this identification and verification process, and continuing to conduct them, we can accumulate valuable data and perhaps create a benchmark for other identification programs.

In recent years, Paralympic-hosting countries like China (2008 Beijing) and Great Britain (2012 London) continue to be strong even after the Games they host. The JSC labeled this NTID event as a "trial," but we expect to see it continue and develop beyond the 2020 Games.

text by Kyoko Hoshino
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