Para-athletes Hone Skills in Mixed-ability Competitions Following Tokyo Games

Courtesy of Hayashi Telempu Corp.
Chika Shigesada, a member of the Tokyo Paralympics archery team, competes in the final rounds of the national archery championships in October 2022.

Top-level disabled and able-bodied athletes have started competing against one another in some sports, such as table tennis and shooting, in the wake of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics held in 2021.

The move is expected to improve the performance of disabled athletes and help realize an inclusive society through sports.

The Japan Table Tennis Association, which sponsors the All-Japan table tennis championships, the country’s premier table tennis event, has set aside recommendation-based slots for disabled athletes for the first time. The six slots, which will be introduced in the next championships in January 2024, are allocated to one man and one woman athlete from each of the table tennis organizations for the physically, hearing and intellectually impaired.

Of the three organizations, the Japan Para Table Tennis Association for the physically impaired held its first qualifying session in Tokyo on June 3 to choose two athletes for recommendation-based slots for the national championships.

Participants included those using wheelchairs and canes.

Koyo Iwabuchi, a member of the Tokyo Paralympics men’s team, and Nozomi Nakamura, a member of the women’s team, qualified for the finals.

“I’m very happy that I was given an opportunity to play and that I qualified [for the All-Japan],” said a smiling Iwabuchi.

Nakamura expressed her own joy, saying that playing at a high-level event with able-bodied athletes would “give hope to disabled athletes.”

Opening the door

The national rifle shooting championships held in Fukui in March eliminated gender categories for titles and also included para-athletes for the first time.

Four disabled athletes participated in two events.

Yuki Yamauchi, an air pistol para-athlete, said after competing with many other athletes: “Para-competitions in Japan sometimes have only five competitors. But the atmosphere here today was so exciting, like a World Cup. It was stimulating, motivating.”

The decision to accept para-athletes was made by Kiichiro Matsumaru, president of the Japan Rifle Shooting Sport Federation.

Similar scores

Before the Tokyo Olympics, able-bodied and disabled athletes practiced side-by-side at the Ajinomoto National Training Center in Kita Ward, Tokyo. At the time, Matsumaru was surprised to see no great difference in their scores, even though para-athletes shot from different positions than able-bodied athletes, such as while sitting in a wheelchair.

“The important thing for rifle shooting is concentration and mental strength, rather than physique or muscle strength,” said Matsumaru.

He added that shooting allows disabled and able-bodied athletes to compete together with ease, which can lead to the “realization of an inclusive society through sports,” which was one of the principles of the Tokyo Games.

He says that he hopes the sport will provide a point of contact between disabled people and society.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A para-athlete takes a shot at the national rifle shooting championships in March, when para-athletes were accepted for the first time.

Going for the win

Table tennis is different from shooting. Performance differs significantly between able-bodied and disabled athletes. But tough matches with the abled help the disabled improve their skills.

The two physically impaired players who qualified for the upcoming national championships had been participating in ordinary qualifying rounds at the prefectural level for many years, each time failing to win against able-bodied players.

“I will improve my skills and work to make the [national championships],” said a determined Iwabuchi.

Yoshihito Miyazaki, a senior official at the Japan Table Tennis Association, believes that the new format for the national championships will be part of the legacy left by the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

“The more times we do it, the more ordinary it will be for disabled athletes to play in the championships,” he said. “It will also be the first step toward realizing an inclusive society where able-bodied and disabled people can live in harmony.”