With the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics rapidly approaching, recent public interest in parasports is taking it to the next level. This is one reason we were interested in talking to para-athlete Saki Takakuwa—a graduate of Keio University who has competed for Japan over many years—to get her impressions on British parasports, many events of which the British para-athletes are among the leading lights, as well as her insights on the differences with Japan in terms of the environment and awareness levels associated with parasports in the UK, the history of these transformations, and her expectations for Tokyo 2020.
Changes I perceive in the environment surrounding parasports from my many years of involvement
According to Ms.Takakuwa, “Dramatic changes have been seen in the Paralympics since around the time of Beijing 2008, with the UK priding itself on being the starting point for accelerating these changes, prompted by the massive success of the London 2012 Games. In this context, it would greatly please me to see the profile and enjoyment of parasports increase significantly in Japan.”
These are the words of Saki Takakuwa, who competed at the London 2012 Games, where she finished 7th in both the 100m and 200m T44 sprints. Ms.Takakuwa self-effacingly refers to these successes as, “beginner’s luck.” Yet, she was back in the finals at Rio 2016, maintaining her successful streak of results with an 8th place finish in the 100m, 7th in the 200m, and a spectacular 5th in the long jump.
“I got my start in para-athletics around the time of the Beijing 2008 Games. Back then, parasports were just entering a transitional period, with peripheral circumstances undergoing gradual changes. Before this, there was a time when parasports were regarded as being on a par with rehabilitation, and it seems that many of my senior peers struggled back then, including having to pay their own expenses to participate in events away from home. For example, only since the 2014 Asian Para Games (Incheon, South Korea) have para-athletes been able to use multi-support houses, which are located away from the athletes’ village and offer various support to teams, including meals and conditioning.
Another change is that now parasports are being broadcast on TV, with coverage slowly but surely becoming more extensive. As an interested party, I am experiencing these transformations firsthand.
In this climate, para-athletes like myself have come to be regarded as being “elite sportspersons” as well, and there are an increasing number of companies looking to employ us as para-athletes.”
Accessibility underpins parasports in the UK
“The UK is amazing. Whether it is driven by an awareness of their status as frontrunners in parasports or not, it remains that parasports are genuinely thriving, and this wonderful atmosphere is generously aided by all the volunteers helping on the sidelines. Finding oneself in the UK gives para-athletes a genuine sense of pride in that status.”
Despite Ms.Takakuwa’s palpable excitement when explaining all this, she tempers this by acknowledging that not everything is wonderful. One example which alerted her to the fact that not everything was set up for the para-athletes was the flag-stoned and cobbled pavements she observed in the streets of London. The majority of travel also involved using the London Underground system, which is housed in complicated structures that posed a lot of problems for some of the visually-impaired athletes. However, this is offset by the sense that someone will always come and help you, that there will be a passerby to offer assistance, not just in the UK but throughout Europe and the United States.
“At the Paris stage of the World Para Athletics Grand Prix 2019, I was amazed to be approached by a young mother with babe in arms, who casually asked me to help out by holding something for her. People in need can ask for help from others without hesitation in Europe. Offers of help have certainly increased in recent times in Japan. Nevertheless, I feel Japan is still some way off from achieving the kind of openness or accessibility implied by my encounter with that mother.”
Indeed, a variety of ingenious ideas were put into practice at the 2017 World Para-athletics Championships held in London.
“As a general rule, the para championships take place after the non-disabled ones, but for the first time ever they were held in advance. This really lit the fuse for the success of the para championships, and that explosive energy translated to the non-disabled championships, naturally serving to contribute to a resounding success.”
Moreover, an initiative targeting London schools was also put into place during the championships, whereby children only had to pay three pounds to get into the stadium. Not only did they get this exceptional offer to spectate at the championships, but the teachers and parents accompanying them also attended and travelled for free.
“The result was that everyone in the stands had a lot of fun as they watched the events. For instance, the kids would be palpably excited wondering if one of their teachers was shown on the big screen. You see something like that, and it makes you really happy, too.”
British parasports volunteers and fans told Ms.Takakuwa, “Parasports are cool and really interesting. We get to see something different from conventional sports when competitors use equipment to compete.” Those words reminded Ms.Takakuwa that they had such great expectations for parasports.
The lessons I would like to see people take home about Japan from Tokyo 2020
Saki Takakuwa, who has connections to the UK, is glad that her old school Keio University will be hosting both the British Olympic (Team GB) and Paralympic (ParalympicsGB) teams for their pre-Games preparation camps at its Hiyoshi Campus facilities. What is more, Ms.Takakuwa is herself currently engaged in diligent daily training sessions at the Hiyoshi Campus athletics ground.
Ms.Takakuwa also tells us of her many friends among overseas athletes, and not just those from Great Britain, and we thus asked Ms.Takakuwa to tell us about the expectations those friends have for Tokyo 2020.
“Japan is still a mystery to them. It seems they are more concerned with finding out about Japan itself than what the system is going to be for hosting overseas para-athletes at Tokyo 2020. If there is anything I can teach them, I will be more than glad to be of assistance. There will surely be great opportunities to practice, with many athletes having passed through Japan for the Rugby World Cup this year.”
What are your thoughts on reading Ms.Takakuwa’s accounts of her experiences and impressions of London, how parasports have found their footing in the landscapes of daily life, and how accessibility (in every sense) gives para-athletes confidence and pride as they take on their events? In Japan too, we are seeing more and more TV programmes, news coverage, and various events which are raising the tempo of support for parasports and, with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, perhaps each of us should take another look at our perceptions and behaviour, and get behind the para-athletes from home and abroad, in the hope that we can be a source of support as they strive to reach their goals.
Saki Takakuwa Profile
Born in Saitama prefecture on 26 May 1992, and working with NTT East, Ms.Takakuwa suffered an osteosarcoma in her left leg in the final year of elementary school, leading to an amputation below the knee in June of her first year at junior high school. Her initiation to sports began at the athletics club of Tokyo Seitoku University Fukaya High School and, after graduating, she entered the Faculty of Policy Management at Keio University, where she kept up athletics as a member of the Track and Field Club, paving the way for a stellar career on the track.
- London 2012 Games: Finished 7th in both 100m and 200m sprints
- Rio 2016 Games: 5th in the Women’s long jump, 7th in the 200m sprint, and 8th in the 100m sprint
- 2014 Asian Para Games (Incheon, South Korea): 3rd in the Women’s 100m sprint
- 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships (Doha, Qatar): 3rd in the Women’s long jump
- 2017 World Para-athletics Championships (London, UK): 5th in the Women’s long jump (T44)
GO GB column writer: Nobuko Kozu