Tokyo Deaflympics raises hopes for inclusive society, better support for deaf athletes

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
At the opening ceremony of the Summer Deaflympics in May, the delegation of host country Brazil marches in amid loud cheers from the spectators.

The Summer Deaflympics, an international sporting event for the hearing impaired, will be held in Tokyo in 2025. This is the first time Japan will host the Deaflympics, and follows Tokyo’s hosting of the Paralympics in 2021, another major international sporting event for the disabled.

Expectations are high that the event will improve the environment for athletes in deaf sports and facilitate a more inclusive society.

Full support from governor

The Japanese Federation of the Deaf (JFD) bid to host the 2025 summer event, and the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf selected Tokyo as the host city on Sept. 10 during its general congress in Vienna.

The Deaflympics is the largest event for athletes with hearing impairments, and it has developed independently from the Paralympics, which is for athletes with physical, visual and intellectual impairments.

“It is a wonderful, challenging event at which I can give my all and pursue my dream,” said Takuma Sasaki, 28, the gold medalist in the men’s 100-meter track and field event in the most recent Deaflympics in Brazil in May and an employee of Sendai University.

Sasaki also said, “I want to set a world record.”

Since Tokyo was selected in 2013 to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, interest in parasports has increased substantially, greatly improving the environment surrounding para-athletes in terms of training facilities and funding.

The JFD decided in 2018 to bid for the Deaflympics, expecting that holding the event in Japan would help increase recognition of deaf sports and see them spread.

The JFD compiled a draft plan for hosting the event mainly in Tokyo. In June of this year, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike expressed her full support, allowing Tokyo to be selected as the host.

Low corporate interest

Currently, athletes of deaf sports are in a tough spot.

According to a 2021 survey by the Nippon Foundation’s Parasports Support Center, the recognition level of the Paralympics is 97.9% while for the Deaflympics it is 16.3%, indicating that companies and other parties are much less interested in the Deaflympics.

The foundation of the athletic organizations is also weak.

Athletes often need to pay part of their participation fees for the Deaflympics. Some athletes are not given public holidays from their workplaces and have to give up on participating.

Although a government policy means the Paralympics are treated the same as the Olympics with regard to obtaining support, the Deaflympics are not given such status. As a result, there is no support system for coaches in deaf sports. In addition, even top athletes in deaf sports are not allowed to use the National Training Center, in principle, unlike Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

“Athletes in deaf sports are yet to be treated appropriately, unlike athletes with other types of impairments,” said Akemi Masuda, who represented Japan in the women’s marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and serves as advisor to the preparation office for the Tokyo Deaflympics.

Masuda said that she hopes the Tokyo Deaflympics will draw many people’s attention to this issue and improve the environment for deaf athletes.

Using existing venues

According to the draft plan, the Tokyo Deaflympics will be held from Nov. 15 to 26, with about 5,000 to 6,000 athletes across delegations from 70 to 80 countries and territories. In addition to facilities in Tokyo, venues in Fukushima and Shizuoka prefectures will also be used for soccer and cycling, respectively.

Hosting the event is expected to cost several billion yen.

Efforts will be made to keep the costs as low as possible by holding the opening and closing ceremonies at the Komazawa Olympic Park General Sports Ground and using existing facilities that were used for the 2020 Tokyo Games, for example.

While making use of the legacies of past events, the 2025 event “will be run using much of our ideas and labor to avoid costing a lot of money,” said a person related to the JFD.

Holding the event entails issues unique to deaf sports. It is necessary to figure out how to secure interpreters for International Sign, which is the official language of international conferences and sporting events, and to deploy volunteer sign language interpreters at each venue.

As the JFD has little experience in organizing international competitions, it is important to establish a system in which all parties can cooperate with each other, including the Japanese Paralympic Committee (JPC), the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) and the central government.

In addition to improving the athletes’ competition environment, the Deaflympics are expected to improve accessibility both in software and hardware.

It is also expected that the Tokyo Deaflympics will allow local volunteers and citizens to interact with people who have a hearing impairment and related people from overseas, deepening their mutual understanding. Such interactions were not possible at the 2020 Tokyo Games, where most of the events were closed to spectators.

“Holding the [Tokyo 2025] event will be a further step toward realizing a world where no one is left out,” said JFD President Fujisaburo Ishino.

It is critical to use the Games as a tailwind toward realizing a truly inclusive society.

Older than Paralympics

Dubbed the “Olympics for the deaf,” the Deaflympics are held once every four years and have summer and winter events, just like the Olympics and Paralympics.

The summer Deaflympics began in 1924, much earlier than the summer Paralympics, which were first held in 1960.

Japan has been participating since the 10th Deaflympics in 1965.

At the Brazilian Deaflympics in May, which had been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, 95 Japanese athletes registered for 11 competitions. Though some athletes were forced to withdraw from competitions due to the pandemic, Japan took 30 medals — 12 gold, eight silver and 10 bronze medals — in swimming, karate and other competitions.

To qualify for the Deaflympics, athletes must have hearing loss of at least 55 decibels.

To ensure fairness, athletes are not allowed to wear hearing aids or similar devices during competition.

The basic rules are almost the same as in the Olympics, other than track and field and swimming, in which a starting light is flashed as the starters’ signals cannot be heard. In soccer, flags are used along with whistles to inform players of foul play and other matters.