New records must continually be marked in order to arouse discussion.
There is no one in the world of Para sports who does not know the name Atsushi Yamamoto. Ever since winning the silver medal
at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, he has continually showed brilliant performances at numerous international
competitions. Today, even at age 35, Yamamoto consistently maintains top-level performance as an active Para athlete.
After I heard that he was going to be launching a new challenge this year, I visited Osaka, where he told me about
his philosophy toward sport competition—in which he has been in the forefront for many years—as well as his thoughts
on the current state of Para sports.in Japan.
I didn’t have the sense that I wouldn’t be able to do anything without my leg.
In fact, I was thinking more that I wanted to continue snowboarding even without my leg.
You have led the world of Para athletics for many years, representing Japan as a long jumper, and have achieved
great results at numerous international competitions. To be honest, I was surprised when I heard that a world-class
athlete like you was going to try something new by aiming to compete at the PyeongChang Paralympics as a representative
of the Japan national team in Para snowboard.
Para athletics is still my main field. I have always engaged in other sports during the Para athletics off-season
or when I have spare time between competitions. Among them, snowboard is something that I am seriously committed
to with a goal to compete at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Paralympics. I am planning to train at many different
locations, including overseas, to get me in condition to qualify for the PyeongChang Paralympics as a Para snowboarder.
Why snowboard, and why now? Can you tell us the reason?
One of the reasons is that snowboard was the first sport that I tried after losing my leg. The other is that when
snowboarding, I’d always had a gut feeling that I might be able to win a competition if Para snowboard ever became
a Paralympic sport.
To begin with, back around 2000, when I started to wear a prosthesis, a snowboarder with a prosthesis was quite
rare in Japan. I was reasonably good at snowboarding—I could glide down the hill, jump and so on—I was also still
young, and that might have added to why I believed that I was the best snowboarder at the time!
Did you snowboard even before you lost your leg?
I started snowboarding when I was in 7th grade. It was my favorite sport at the time. I lost my leg in a motorcycle
accident when I was in 11th grade. I loved snowboarding so much that I asked my doctor, right before the amputation,
“Will I still be able to snowboard (even after amputation)?” Since I didn’t seem to care about losing my leg,
the nurses were concerned whether I was okay. People around me wondered, shouldn’t he be feeling terrible?
Wasn’t it actually a difficult time for you?
No, not really. I didn’t think too deeply about it. I didn’t have the sense that I wouldn’t be able to do anything
without my leg. In fact, I was thinking more that I wanted to continue snowboarding even without my leg.
That’s amazing emotional strength. Did you always like sports, even as a child?
Yes, I did. I think I like to push myself. No matter what the sport, I always want to win. For example, besides
athletics and snowboard, I also do the triathlon, which, to me, is more like spiritual training than a competitive
sport. It involves the kind of rigor that I don’t experience in track and field, and it gives me an indescribable
feeling of accomplishment. The 100m sprint and the long jump, for example, are over in a matter of seconds. So,
even when I win a medal in these events, I feel pretty light-hearted about it. It’s like, okay, I got it. The
triathlon, on the other hand, is like a marathon. When I complete a race, I have a greater feeling of accomplishment,
regardless of my race time.
I understand that you used to play volleyball before you lost your leg in the accident, and that you took up
athletics after you started to wear a prosthetic leg. What made you decide to start the sport?
It was my encounter with sports prosthesis. It was around the time when such prosthesis were being introduced to
Japan. I happened to have an opportunity to try one on. I thought that the design of the prosthetic leg was so
cool, I wanted to try running with it.
You have the national qualification as a prosthetist. I think It’s a job that most people aren’t familiar with.
Can you tell us what kind of job it is?
The main job of a prosthetist is to create prosthetic sockets. That’s the part where the amputated part fits
in, the body weight is carried, and kinetic information is conveyed to the rest of the prosthesis. Another
job is to assemble prosthetic parts, which are basically ready-made. We have to put parts together using hex
keys to make a prosthesis.
We make prosthetic arms, too. But actually, the biggest demand is for corsets, which physicians prescribe
to people with hernias and lower back pain. Making them is also the job of a prosthetist These days, we also
make shoe insoles, which are used to relieve foot fatigue. So, the typical duties of a prosthetist are to create
parts for missing body parts, supportive devices to augment existing physical functions and devices to prevent
Are there prosthetists who specialize in making prosthetic legs?
There aren’t any prosthetists who specialize in legs. A patient doesn’t make a new prosthetic leg so frequently,
so I think the biggest demand recently is probably in corsets. When I was studying to obtain certification
as a prosthetist, there were only about 100 licenses granted annually. I’ve heard that today, there are about
200 people who obtain licenses each year. It’s a national qualification, so you have to take an exam. The pass
rate when I got my license was nearly 90%, so it was pretty high. I heard it’s a bit more difficult to pass
now. It seems that there are now more four-year colleges where you can study to become a prosthetist.
Are there many athletes who have a prosthetist’s license?
In Japan, I think there are only several people. As far as I am aware, it’s only (Shota) Hineno who is a long
jumper, and myself. I also know that (Kenji) Kotani, a Paralympian who competed in the Athens 2004 Paralympic
Games as a long jumper, used to be an athlete and prosthetist. I think that I’m the only current member of
the national team who has a prosthetist’s license.
I’m surprised to hear that. I’d imagine that it would be competitively beneficial to athletes if they could
tweak their own prosthesis.
Basically, anyone who wants to can adjust their own prosthesis without a license. But it’s meaningless to adjust
it without understanding the theory behind it. I have obtained knowledge of prostheses, and I now try different
angles for kicking the ground to optimize my performance. Since I enjoy this process, I believe it’s one of
my strengths as an athlete to have the skill for creating and maintaining my own prosthesis.
What kind of a presence is a prosthetist to an athlete (with a prosthesis)?
Prosthetic sockets can only be made by an experienced prosthetist, so in that sense they are indispensable people
for athletes. As for the assembly of other prosthesis parts, it’s really a matter of how compatible a prosthesis
and an athlete’s amputated body part is. Athletes need to communicate well with their prosthetists on how they
are going to use their prostheses.
Prosthetists don’t have enough experience in relation to athletic competitions. That’s why an athlete has
to clearly communicate how he or she will go about bettering his or her record. An athlete would be able to
run faster, jump higher or farther, and so on, if the athlete can form a good tag team with the prosthetist.
I believe that the types of prostheses that are used vary from sport to sport—what kind of feature does each
of them have?
In Para athletics, many of the prosthetic blades used for sprints are lightweight and the ground reaction force
transmits rapidly. On the other hand, the blades used in the long jump are a bit heavier, which makes the force
of contacting the ground bigger to get more ground reaction force. The main difference between them is the amount
of carbon that is contained in the prosthesis. Generally speaking, the more carbon used in a prosthetic leg,
the bigger the ground reaction force that an athlete gets.
What about prostheses used in other sports, like snowboard?
When snowboarding, you need to control your prosthetic leg. A prosthesis for snowboarding is designed to resist
the force generated from bending knees, then release it by extending knees. The structure of the prosthetic foot
part is also unique. It’s designed to release the force easily using a combination of pneumatic and hydraulic
pressure systems to enable the dynamic turns of snowboarding.
I play golf, too, and use a prosthesis with a cushiony-pad for the twisting movements of a golf swing. There
are also specific prosthetic legs for cycling. Each prosthesis has a different feature according to the sport
it’s designed for.
You’ve been involved in Para athletics and other Para sports for many years. How have prosthetic legs changed
over the years with the development of technology?
They’ve changed remarkably, especially from around 2010. As sports-specific prostheses were developed and introduced,
athletes started to use new prostheses and modify their technique and form to fit the prosthesis they were using.
That enabled them to break world records. Not only that, sports-specific prosthetic knee parts have also been
developed recently. There are outstanding technical advancements being made in fitting protheses.
I think the sentiment that Para athletes should not be stronger than able-bodied athletes is still prevailing.
Indeed. Since 2010, controversies have often occurred over records achieved with the use of a prosthetic leg.
For example, Markus Rehm, a German amputee long jumper, defeated able-bodied athletes to win at the 2014 German
Athletics Championships. This case became a world issue and was termed as “technological doping”—that athletes
with prosthetic legs had an unfair advantage if competing with able-bodied athletes in the same competition.
I think controversies have continued over the use of prosthetics and sports in various situations. Do you feel
that any progress regarding this has been made these days?
Frankly speaking, I think things are at a standstill.. Things have not fallen behind but there has been no progress
Take the case of Oscar Pistorius, a South African Para athlete who competed in the London 2012 Olympic Games.
He hadn’t achieved a record that defeated able-bodied athletes, so there was no problem for him to compete in
the Olympic Games. Meanwhile, Markus already held a record at that time that could possibly defeat the records
of top athletes at the Olympic Games. Because of that, it was felt that he should not be allowed to compete in
the Olympic Games. I think the sentiment that Para athletes should not be stronger than able-bodied athletes
is still prevailing.
There’s a rule that in order to compete in the Olympic Games, Para athletes must prove that their prosthetic
limbs do not give them an unfair advantage, isn’t there?
Yes. But I think that’s impossible.
Could you elaborate?
I’m doing research at university, and there is data that shows that in the long jump, a prosthetic leg gives an
athlete advantage in regard to the moment of takeoff. It means that a characteristic of prosthetic blade long
jumpers is that their runup speed doesn’t slowdown in the takeoff.
Long jump data shows a very clear correlation between the runup speed and the distance of a jump. According
to data, I shouldn’t be able to mark a 6.62m jump with my 100m sprint record. The data shows able-bodied long
jumpers with the same 100m record as mine jumping less than 6 meters. Of course, there is some margin of error,
but prosthetic blade long jumpers’ records are significantly off from the standard finding of long jump data.
That’s why as far as I can tell from the data that I’ve seen, I, unfortunately, can say that prosthetics do provide
an unfair advantage in the case of the long jump.
How did you feel, then, when you heard the news that Markus wasn’t allowed to compete in the Olympic Games?
I felt sorry for him. I think that it’s only natural for an athlete to want to compete against strong opponents.
So, if I were him, I would have desperately wanted to take part in the Olympics. With that said, I think that
prosthetic athletes came into the limelight through that news, and there was a lot of debate that ensued. I see
that as a good thing. I heard a lot of different opinions, too, like, “Are prosthetic legs really advantageous?”
or “What’s wrong with having a Para athlete compete in the Olympics?!”
Even so, I personally feel that athletes wearing prosthetic legs and able-bodied athletes will be competing
in different environments for now. It might still be difficult for us to compete against each other in the Olympics,
but I think it’s important that we create more opportunities where both athletes with prosthetic legs and able-bodied
athlete can compete together. Opening up smaller-scale international competitions, such as the Grand Prix series
or the League tournaments to more athletes would be a start. I know there have already been such cases in Germany
and Great Britain.
I don’t think there are many opportunities like that yet in Japan—what do you think we should do to stimulate
those movements, including discussions regarding prosthetics?
I honestly don’t think anything nothing will change under current circumstances. The more strong athletes with
prostheses there are who threaten the records of able-bodied athletes, the more data of we will be able to collect
on prostheses. I think that we’d then be ready to restart the discussion.
Actually, the prosthesis worn by Markus is nothing special. It has no major difference from the ones that many
other Para athletes use. Even so, he is the only one so far who can compete neck-in-neck against able-bodied
athletes. Is it due to his ability, or his prosthesis? We can’t tell which it is at this moment.
I noticed many people advocating him, saying that athletes like him could lead public attention to Para sports.
Opinions may vary, but what do you personally think?
I hope that more and more people will discuss this issue. If it’s acknowledged that the Paralympians can outdo
the Olympians in terms of records, there will be more interest in Para sports, which will eventually make the
Paralympic Games more exciting to people.
At the Japan Para Athletics Championships at Komazawa Olympic Park this year, you commented on the empty seats
of the stadium, which caused a buzz. I think that was your honest impression, but could you tell us more about
why you said that?
Why? Hmmm… It’s hard to explain. I was rather frustrated that nothing was being done when we could have been doing
Do you mean that everyone involved in the championships hadn’t done enough?
Yes. The staff of the organizations, the officers of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government—I couldn’t sense any enthusiasm
on their part to unite and make the event successful.
For example, Para athletes have often been invited to give lectures at schools, which amounted to over 100 engagements
just in the Tokyo metropolitan area. If we had publicized the championships at those occasions better, that could
have brought about better results. The reason for people coming could be anything. It could simply be something
like, “I saw Atsushi Yamamoto on TV once, so I want to see him live,” or “I might as well go because it’s free.”
We need to encourage people to come to the stadium. Of course, we also need media coverage, but I wish we could
have done more to appeal Para athletics directly to the public to have them attend.
You have quite a long career compared to other members of the current national Para-athletics team. How has public
awareness and the way the media handles Para sports changed over the years as compared to when you first started
It has changed significantly. When I first started, people said, “Paralympics? What’s that?” Today, when I ask
the audience at my talks whether they know the Paralympics, more than 90% of the children answer “yes.” Public
awareness has definitely increased. However, if you ask about individual athletes, most of them don’t know who’s
who. So, I think the next step is probably to generate greater interest in Para athletes.
I think that just about everybody involved in Para sports recognizes the name Atsushi Yamamoto. The thing is,
if you look around the world, people who know about Para sports account for only 0.1% or less of the whole. In
other words, 99.9% of people in the world still haven’t heard of me. I want to boost that figure, even if only
by 1 or 2 percent. The best way to do that is to work hand-in-hand with the media, I think.
You’re 35 years old now and reaching the age when you’re thought of as a veteran. Do you feel any physical changes
Not so much for the time being. I’m not feeling any improvement in my physical strength, but I think that my records
are getting better through technical improvements. I’ve also learned to take a precautionary break before getting
injured. Another thing that’s helping greatly, I think, is that I train with students. I think I’m able to stay
young in sprit by being with students.
Wouldn’t competing in a physically demanding sport like snowboard ordinarily be tough for someone your age?
Yes, everyone keeps reminding me of that! (laughter) The thing is, you only live once. What matters most is that
we enjoy ourselves. That’s why, if there were to be anything more important to me than athletics, it would be
being able to feel enjoyment in what I’m doing.
The length of a Para athlete’s career tends to be getting longer around the world.
Although they’re longer compared to some year ago, there are more athletes from my generation who have already
retired than those who are still competing. There’s an increase in athletes around 19 or 20 years of age who
are winning medals right now.
Even as a generational shift is rapidly progressing, you did win the title of the Japan Snowboard Championship
Yes, I did, but it was a domestic event. I can keep pushing myself by setting the sight on the PyeongChang Paralympics,
but the important thing is how close I can get to world standards. I haven’t experienced global competition in
snowboard yet. I think I’ll get even more excited about (training and snowboarding) once I experience global
What are your thoughts on retiring as an athlete?
As far as athletics goes, it might be after TokyoParalympics, though I honestly don’t know. I’d like to keep going
as long as I’m having fun... But everybody has a different view. The thing is, I still haven’t got a gold medal,
which I’m craving for in the Tokyo Paralympics. I want to retire with a good result.
When you retire, do you think you would be worried about the young talents who may follow after you?
You know, that’s not really my problem. Of course, I’d be ready to hand over all the techniques and knowledge that
I have if asked by the younger generation. That’s something I already do.
People say that It’s quite rare for a single athlete to keep top level performance up for such a long time as
I’m doing. Sometimes, people treat me like an oddball (laughter). But, as I said, I want to spend my life enjoying
myself. So, I think I’d be able to keep things up so long as I feel that way. Whether it’s athletics, snowboarding
or even media exposure or events, I enjoy them all. Every different experience that I have brings me a different
You mentioned that you asked your doctor right before the amputation surgery whether you’d be able to snowboard
again. I can see that your attitude of enjoying everything hasn’t changed at all since childhood.
That’s probably true. I have always been determined to do what I enjoy, and I stay away from what I don’t. I also
have to do things that I don’t like in order to do what I enjoy. Like studying English, for example. I hate studying
but I need to be able to speak English if I want to talk to my friends from overseas. In that sense, I think
I’ve been able to proactively engage in even those things that I don’t necessarily like.
Born in 1982 in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, Atsushi Yamamoto is a long jump and sprint athlete competing in the T42
classification. His left leg was amputated above the knee at age 17 following a motorcycle accident. Yamamoto entered
the world of Para athletics while aiming to become a prosthetist after graduating from high school. At the Beijing
2008 Paralympic Games, he became the first Japanese leg-amputee athlete to win a silver medal in the long jump.
He won the gold medal at the 2013 IPC Athletics World Championships. At the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, he won a
silver medal in the men’s long jump T42, and a bronze medal in men’s 4 x 100m T42-47. Yamamoto began his career
as a professional athlete in October 2017 and is now aiming to represent Japan in the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympics
Winter Games in Para snowboard.