Drive to Rekindle Enthusiasm in Parasports Underway Ahead of Paris Games

Yomiuri Shimbun photo
Long jumper Kaede Maegawa strikes a pose showcasing her prosthetic leg at a photo shoot in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on Jan. 13.

Although the superb athleticism and skills of competitors with disabilities performing at the Tokyo Paralympics in 2021 wowed spectators in Japan and around the world, the excitement generated during the Games seems to have faded in the years since. Wednesday marked six months until the 2024 Paris Paralympic Games start, and athletes and organizations are trying to reignite the popularity of their parasports before the cauldron is lit.

In mid-January, long jumper Kaede Maegawa and archer Tomohiro Ueyama – who both competed at the Tokyo Paralympics – were the stars of a special photo shoot at a hall in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. About 50 photographers snapped a flurry of shots of Maegawa, 26, as she posed in a crouch start while wearing her prosthetic leg, and of Ueyama, 36, as he drew his bow while seated in his wheelchair.

“Please show your prosthetic leg in this direction,” one photographer called out. “You look cool,” shouted another.

Yomiuri Shimbun photo
Archer Tomohiro Ueyama draws his bow as photographers snap shots at the photo shoot.

A 56-year-old company employee from Shibuya Ward had a blast at the shoot. “I was moved by their impressive physiques,” Yamamoto said. “These athletes are livelier than I am, which gave me a real boost.”

The photo shoot was organized by the Tokyo metropolitan government, which has been trying to promote sports for disabled people since the Tokyo Games. They regularly hold events featuring para-athletes at which people can try out the sports. But Takao Ochi, a photographer who was a lecturer at the photo shoot and has been covering the Paralympics for more than 20 years, said many athletes and acquaintances in athletic organizations have told him recently that some sponsors have withdrawn their support. “I get the feeling that social sentiment toward the Paralympics has been fizzling out,” said Ochi, 45.

Waning interest

According to an annual survey conducted by the Tokyo government, a total of 44.3% of residents said they were “interested” or “somewhat interested” in parasports in fiscal 2023. This was down from 53% in fiscal 2021.

Hidetaka Sugimura, who won a gold medal as an individual in boccia at the Tokyo Games and has qualified for the Paris tournament, is determined to rekindle interest in parasports through his actions. “The athletes need to produce great results in Paris so that people get excited about parasports again,” said the 42-year-old.

New attempts to get the ball rolling in this endeavor have started. In June 2023, the governing organizations of nine sports including equestrian and powerlifting established a new body called P.United and decided to cooperate in finding sponsors and promoting the appeal of their sports. An event at which people can try these sports will be held at a shopping mall in Yokohama in late March. Athletes also will attend to promote their sports.

The number of athletes participating in sports represented by the nine organizations ranges from just 15 to about 600. Sponsorship income received by these organizations tallied ¥18.3 million in fiscal 2022, which was less than half the amount they pocketed before the Tokyo Paralympics.

An official of P.United, said, “Some of these member organizations are not widely known. I hope that having nine extremely diverse organizations, including those for winter sports and sports for people with intellectual disabilities, working together will heighten social awareness of their activities more than if they tried to do so individually.”