Holding the five-day Tokyo Paralympics from November 8 -12, was an amazing triumph for Japan. As previous posts have explained, Japan went from zero awareness about the rehabilitative power of sports on the disabled to hosting the first Paralympics in Asia in a matter of years.
Even more amazingly, Japan organized not one, but two competitions for the disabled, one right after the other. The first competition was the Tokyo Paralympics, an international event. The second competition is less well known, a domestic competition that was more daring than the famous first competition, for it expanded the scope of competitions.
According to Kazuo Ogoura, in his paper The “Legacy” of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, the British, led by Ludwig Guttmann of Stoke Mandeville Hospital, focused the competition of disabled athletes only on those who had spinal cord injuries, who got around via wheelchairs, but that “in the 1960s, there emerged a growing call for including those with vision impairment and amputees in such sporting events.
In fact, as D. J. Frost has written in his paper, Tokyo’s Other Games: The Origins and Impact of the 1964 Paralympics, “by the early 1960s, a handful of Japanese medical experts interested in rehabilitation had established relationships with European specialists outside of Great Britain who were actively promoting sports for those with disabilities besides spinal injuries. Japanese organisers of the 1964 Games also appear to have been in regular contact with Norman Acton, who eventually became head of the International Sports Organisation for the Disabled (ISOD). In July 1963, at Acton’s urging, Japan dispatched a team of athletes to participate in what various Japanese sources identify as the First International Sports Festival for the Disabled held in Linz, Austria.”
Awareness of the impact sports can have on the disabled beyond those with spinal cord injuries was indeed growing in Japan. Frost explained that when a group of early supporters that included members of the Health and Welfare Ministry, The Asahi Shimbun Social Welfare Organization and the International Lions Club organized a preparatory committee to consider the organization of a Paralympics in Tokyo in 1964, they initially agreed that “that the International Games held in Tokyo should be a multi-disability event, including athletes with paraplegia, blindness, hearing impairments, and other physical challenges.”
But as Ogoura explained, the officials at Stoke Mandeville, who were the patrons and coordinators at the international level, were not ready to make that shift beyond wheelchair athletes.
During the preparation stage for the Tokyo Paralympics, Yutaka Nakamura, who was one of the event’s central figures, campaigned in response to requests from German officials to include athletes with vision impairment and amputees in the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics but failed to secure consent from Stoke Mandeville officials.
Amazingly, the Japanese organizers were not deterred, and decided to split the baby by keeping the Stoke Mandeville scope for the 5-day international Tokyo Paralympic Games, but also by holding a separate domestic 2-day event soon after the first one. As Frost wrote, “it was the perfect plan. It did not threaten to alter the approach of the Stoke Mandeville Games themselves, and it addressed Japanese desires to serve a larger portion of the disabled population. Yet, the Games were clearly not equal in length or prestige, and as a result, the National Sports Meet attracted far less attention.”
The so-called “National Sports Meet” ran from November 13 – 14, 1964, and despite the fewer number of days, was larger than the highly publicized “International Sports Meet.” The international meet was three days longer than the domestic meet, but had fewer athletes (375 vs 480) and fewer sports (9 vs 34). As Frost described, this pioneering decision was both intimidating and inspiring.
With more than 34 sporting events for men and women with a wide range of disabilities, the National Meet added a layer of complexity to the planning efforts that in later years would play a role in other potential host sites’ decisions to decline the Paralympics. The structure adopted for these Tokyo Games reflects the commitment to hosting a multi-disability event that was apparent in some of the earliest organisational efforts.
Today, the Paralympics is indeed a multi-disability, multi-sport event which includes a highly complex mix of disabilities, with thousands of competitors coming from over 100 nations. The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, both its international and domestic meets, played a significant role in the evolution and history of disabled sports.
But in the fascinating fantasy world of “What If” speculation, the Paralaympic Movement may have had a different, perhaps more delayed progression through time had Guttmann met a different fate in the increasingly scary build up to World War II in Germany.
In 1938, Guttmann was the medical director of a Jewish Hospital in Breslau, which at the time was part of Germany. On November 9, German paramilitary and citizens walked unimpeded through cities across Germany smashing the glass windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues. Called Kristallnacht, this pogrom led to the death of dozens of Jews, and the arrest of tens of thousands of Jewish men.
On that Night of Broken Glass, 64 Jewish men were admitted into Guttman’s hospital. While many were injured, some were not and were simply looking for refuge from the violent rampage. According to this interview of Guttmann’s daughter, Eva Loeffler, Guttmann admitted all to the hospital regardless of whether they were injured or not, at great personal risk.
My father said they must all be allowed in, whether they were ill or not and they were all admitted to beds on the wards. The next day the Gestapo came round to see my father, wanting to know why such a large number of admissions had happened overnight. My father was adamant that all the men were sick and said many of them were suffering from stress. He took the Gestapo from bed to bed, justifying each man’s medical condition. Apparently he also pulled faces and grimaced at the patients from behind the Gestapo’s back, signaling to them to pull the same expressions and then saying, “Look at this man; he’s having a fit.”
Of the 64, only four were carted away by the Gestapo, the remaining 60 allowed to escape incarceration or death for another day.
Guttmann was Jewish, and thus could easily have been arrested, which would likely have led to death in a concentration camp. But he not only saved the lives of dozens, he saved himself. Despite the fact that he was Jewish, Guttmann was one of the foremost authorities in neuro medicine, and was thus still highly valued by the German government. In fact, in order to exercise influence with a potential ally in the Portuguese, the Nazi regime dispatched Guttmann to Portugal so that he could treat a close friend of the Portuguese prime minister, António de Oliveira Salazar. The German authorities then re-issued Guttmann’s passport (as all Jews had their passports confiscated), and then send him to Portugal.
After finishing his work in Portugal, Guttmann made a significant trip to London, where he met members of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning. This particular group at the time was devoted to obtaining visas for Jewish academics in Germany to come to England. In fact, according to Guttman’s daughter, Loeffler, the society had already sent a visa to the relevant Berlin authorities informing them that Guttmann has already been offered a research post at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford. When Guttmann returned to Germany, he was presented with an opportunity that could secure his family’s long-term safety, or accelerate his family’s demise.
It was 1939 and I was six years old. I remember I was abnormally frightened at the time; I used to cry a lot. Even as a small child I picked up the fear and sadness felt by my parents. Although Jews were allowed to take out some furniture, clothes and linen they were not allowed to take any money, gold silver or jewelry. But the official who was supervising us came round the day before and told my mother ‘I shall be an hour late tomorrow’. It was obviously a hint that we might pack what we wanted; but my mother was too frightened to take anything forbidden as she thought it could be a trap.
Fortunately, it was not a trap.
Five years later, Guttmann was asked to run the National Spinal Injuries Center at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, England, which led to his revolutionary work on treatment of the disabled, and the eventual birth of the Paralympic Movement.
But what if Guttmans’s pleas and gesticulations before the Gestapo in the aftermath of the Night of Broken Glass had ended in his incarceration?
What if those 60 Jewish men were not allowed to live another day, to have a chance to survive the war and have families, grandchildren, and great grandchildren?
What if Guttmann was not alive to emigrate to England, and join Stoke Mandeville Hospital?
Would there be a Paralympic Games as we know it today?
In 1917, at the age of 18, Ludwig Guttmann volunteered at a hospital and watched a young coal miner, who suffered a serious spinal injury and paralysis, wither away over a five-week period in isolation. Doctors could do nothing for him except encase him in plaster and watch him die. Six years later, Guttmann graduated from the University of Breslau in Poland in medicine, after which he took a position in Neurology and Neurosurgery, only because he could not find a placement in pediatrics, his first choice.
That decision was to have impact ripples that resonate powerfully today.
As the head of the National Spinal Injuries Center at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, England, Dr Guttmann pursued a line of treatment novel at the time – rehabilitation of injured war veterans via sporting activities to build up not only their physical capacity, but also their mental strength. Likely recalling the demise of the young coal miner when he was 18, Guttmann believed that patients with such disabilities required a new form of treatment, a forward-thinking treatment, that would eventually prepare them for re-entry into society. As explained in this article:
Guttmann fundamentally disagreed with the commonly held medical view on a paraplegic patient’s future and felt it essential to restore hope and self-belief in his patients as well as practical re-training so when they were well enough to leave they could once more contribute to society. He achieved this firstly by changing the way they were treated – he had them moved regularly to avoid the build up of pressure sores and the possibility of urinary tract infections developing – and secondly by engaging them in physical and skill-based activities. Sports like Archery improved their mental wellbeing while learning new skills, such as woodwork, clock and watch repair and typing, would ensure they would be employable. If staff, or patients, on Ward X thought they were going to have an easy time, they were in for a shock.
Guttmann was less innovator and more revolutionary, a man who’s powerful belief in the ability of disabled patients to recover from tremendous physical disabilities to re-enter society led to an incredible transformation at the spinal injuries center. According to this article, Stoke Mandeville had 24 beds and 1 patient when Guttmann arrived, but within 6 months the center housed close to 50 patients, all receiving his obsessive care. Said one Dr. John Silver,
Essentially if they went anywhere else for care, the spinal injuries patients died. He exerted a total, obsessive control over all aspects of care at the hospital, whether it was him coming round in the middle of the night to make sure that the nurses had turned patients, or checking on the quality of the cleaners’ work or that of the food served on the wards. Everything was his responsibility. This was such an enormous contrast with consultants in other hospitals.
Inspired by the 1948 Olympic Games which were held in London, Guttmann held an archery contest on July 28, 1948, the day of the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics. A total of 16 disabled wheelchair-bound men and women came together representing two institutions: The Star and Garter Home in Richmond Surrey and Stoke Mandeville. (According to the Star and Garter site, their team won, not only in 1948, but also 1949.)
The archery contest was well publicized, for it was in the spirit of the Olympics, whose ideals of participation resonated with the disabled who yearned to participate and be included. Guttmann is quoted here as saying, “Small as it was, it was a demonstration to the public that competitive sport is not the prerogative of the able-bodied.”
And thus was born the Paralympic Movement.
If ever I did one good thing in my medical career it was to introduce sport into the treatment and rehabilitation programme of spinal cord sufferers and other severely disabled.
Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, in Scruton, ‘Stoke Mandeville, Road to Paralympics’. The Peterhouse Press, 1998
Today, Emperor Akihito is 83 years old, a revered father figure in Japan, looked upon kindly by old and young alike. The Emperor took the unusual step to ask the Japanese government for permission to abdicate in 2019 so he could hand over the countless royal duties to his son, the Crown Prince Naruhito.
In 1959, then Crown Prince Akihito married a wealthy commoner named Michiko, in a highly publicized and popular wedding ceremony, a television extravaganza in a time when Japan was just getting its footing back after years of post-war American occupation.
When the nascent Preparatory Committee began to seriously consider the hosting of a Stoke Mandeville Games in Tokyo after the Tokyo Olympics, the head of the committee, Yoshisuke Kasai, knew he needed powerful allies and influencers to build the awareness of disabled sports and a possible Tokyo Paralympics, as well as raise the organizational infrastructure and funds required to pull off an international sporting event successfully…in only two years.
As explained in this post, part of the plan to grow awareness was to send athletes from Japan for the first time to the annual Stoke Mandeville Games in London, in 1962. According to D. J. Frost and his article, Tokyo’s Other Games: The Origins and Impact of the 1964 Paralympics, Kasai appears to have leveraged the opportunity to celebrate Japan’s participation in the Stoke Mandeville Games to introduce the importance of sporting events for the disabled to the Imperial Family. He arranged for the Crown Prince Akihito to meet the returning athletes and members of the Preparatory Committee, which was heavily covered by the Press.
In addition to the Crown Prince’s expressed hopes for the Paralympics to come to Tokyo in 1964, the newspapers were filled with pictures of the Crown Prince, the Crown Princess, and the disabled athletes showing off their skills. Members of the government, including then Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, pledged their support for the Tokyo Paralympics. As Frost wrote, thus began a long-lasting relationship between the Imperial Family and the Paralympic movement.
Although it remains unclear how the meetings with imperial family members came about, it seems likely that committee members, and perhaps Kasai specifically, mobilised their social connections to establish what proved to be a long-lasting and critically important link between the Paralympics and the imperial household. Associations with the Crown Prince, in particular, practically guaranteed the Games increased media attention. At a moment when the ruling conservative party in Japan, led by Prime Minister Ikeda, was looking to revive the influence and prestige of the imperial family, the potential power of the Crown Prince’s expressions of support should not be underestimated.
A cording to this paper called The “Legacy” of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, from the Journal of the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Research Group, Kazuo Ogoura explains that the involvement of the Imperial Family in the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics was significant, as “at least one of the members of the Imperial family went to see some events every day,” and that their commitment to disabled athletes was heartfelt:
Even after the Games ended, they extended full-scale cooperation and support to those involved. This experience helped them establish in-depth knowledge and interest in the Paralympics in general. It must be noted that the Imperial involvement came from their heart, rather than physical and systemic arrangement. A member of the Paralympics’ International Secretariat said, “When the Crown Prince and Princess unofficially invited the members of the Secretariat to the Imperial Palace, the Crown Princess Michiko told us that their young prince made a Teru Teru Bozu doll to pray for sunny weather during the Paralympics.”
The Japanese government was conscious now of the possibility of the Tokyo Paralympics, and the impact that such a successful international event right after a successful Tokyo Olympics would help boost Japan’s standing in the global community. They also understood that to succeed, the institution of the Imperial Family and the increasing star power of the Crown Prince and Princess were needed. That in turn would continue to enhance the Imperial Family as a fundamental pillar of Japanese society. As Frost wrote,
The Tokyo Paralympics, emerging from this same historical and cultural milieu, proved no less important as a tool for reviving national symbols and bolstering Japan’s international prestige. Indeed, viewed in this light, the Crown Prince’s oft-mentioned involvement with the Paralympics reflected more than a personal commitment on his part; it was a carefully cultivated and highly politicised link designed to benefit both the Games and the international reputation of Japan’s future monarch.
The Crown Prince and Princess, as you can see in the video below, were present during a good part of the 5-day Paralympics. Unlike Emperor Hirohito, whose appearance at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was most official and formal, the Crown Prince and Princess walked among the athletes, stopping to greet and talk with them. Their exit during the closing ceremonies of the Tokyo Paralympics was a stroll across the gymnasium flow, waving and smiling at the wheelchair athletes – a modern royal family for changing times.
It’s difficult to lead people where they don’t want to go, but ought to.
As I had written in this post, Dr. Yutaka Nakamura played a key role in making the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics a reality. But he did so in the face of considerable challenge.
A graduate of Kyushu University in 1951, Nakamura was a medical doctor in orthopedics, with a growing expertise in rehabilitation. At the age of 31, Nakamura headed orthopedics at the national hospital of Beppu. At the time, like many others, he did not consider sports as a way to rehabilitate people with disabilities.
But a Health and Welfare Ministry grant in 1960 to support a six-month trip to the United States and Europe to study rehabilitation facilities and practices overseas opened his eyes. Like the elite Japanese students sent to foreign countries in the Meiji Era of the late 19th century, returning to Japan as institution builders, Nakamura became aware of better ways to improve the conditions of the disabled in Japan.
This thinking crystalized in his time spent with Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, who ran the National Center for Spinal Cord Injuries at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. During his time with Guttmann, according to D. J. Frost in his paper, Tokyo’s Other Games: The Origins and Impact of the 1964 Paralympics, “Nakamura repeatedly expressed amazement at Stoke Mandeville’s success: after six months of treatment, 85% of patients with spinal injuries experienced at least some level of rehabilitation, with many leaving the hospital and returning to society.”
Apparently, Guttmann viewed Nakamura skeptically, one of many Japanese visiting his facilities who came and went. According to Frost, Nakamura quoted Guttmann from his biography as saying, “So you’re Japanese? Several Japanese have come here already. All of them have said that they want to imitate what we are doing here, and then they go back to Japan. So far, not one of them has followed through and done it.” As Frost explained, Nakamura agreed with that assessment, but was also determined to apply these new ideas in Japan.
However, Nakamura faced resistance at home. Beppu is world-famous for its hot springs, and was a center for bath and massage treatments. When Nakamura explained to colleagues that he wanted to treat people by having them participate in sporting activities, he was, according to Frost, “openly ridiculed” by other doctors. At the heart of this resistance was a fear that Nakamura was trying to “simply undo all the rehabilitative work they had achieved, and putting the disabled on public display at a sporting event was the moral equivalent of showing off freaks at a circus.”
And yet, Nakamura persevered, connecting with local government officials, local disability organizations, instructors and other medical specialists to organize Japan’s first ever disabled person’s sports competition – The Oita Prefecture Sports Meet for the Disabled – which was held on October 22, 1961. Frost explained that very few noticed this pioneering event, but fortunately a few who did notice were the proponents of holding the Paralympics in Tokyo. Perhaps to his surprise, Nakamura was invited to join a newly formed Preparatory Committee in 1962. It was one of the most important decisions the committee would make.
To the committee members, Nakamura provided a practical case study that Japan could organize a sports competition for disabled people. To Nakamura, the committee needed to move faster. As a newly minted committee member, he recommended that they send a Japanese team to the Stoke Mandeville Games in London in July, 1962. Since that competition was only 2 months away, the committee members were reluctant to rush because Japan really had no athletes and there was little funding available. But committee leader, Yoshisuke Kasai, understood the impact media coverage could have if they sent Japan’s first-ever athletes to the Stoke Mandeville Games in London, so he approved the trip.
Nakamura identified two athletes from Oita, likely participants of Oita’s 1961 competition. Nakamura also had to personally apply for a loan to fund the trip. There was a donation by British Overseas Airway Corporation to pay for one round-trip airfare, but since a total of five people were heading to London, Nakamura sold his car so that he could fund the remaining travel expense for the entire team.
According to Frost, Kasai was grateful, considering Nakamura’s effort essential to securing consensus and final approval in 1963 for Japan to host the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics.
Recounting his experiences at the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1963 when Japan’s bid to host the Paralympics was formally approved, Kasai later commented, ‘If it hadn’t been for Nakamura, we would have had nothing but problems’. According to Kasai, Nakamura’s familiarity with the staff and facilities, his knowledge of the Games themselves, and especially his relationship with Guttmann proved invaluable. “Without Nakamura,” Kasai observed, “the Paralympics might not have happened.”
The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, which ran from November 8 to 12, had an immediate impact on Japanese society.
Only a few weeks after the exhilarating Tokyo Olympiad, the Paralympics created an entirely new set of images and impressions on the Japanese psyche regarding notions of what disabled people can and can’t do, as well as the individual Japanese attitude towards disabled people.
Hundreds of foreign Paralympians were in Japan, serving as models in terms of performance and attitude, which was a jolt to Japanese society. Seeichiro Ide of the Ministry of Health and Welfare said, “Japan had the culture of shunning people with disabilities,” and that “making the disabled more visible in society” was a new goal for the new Japan.
A paper entitled The “Legacy” of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, from the Journal of the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Research Group, examined the areas of impact of the Paralympics on Japanese society. My labels for those impacts are: Confidence in Ability, Not Shame in Disability; An Emerging Independent Mindset; Paralympians as Athletes; Medical Shift from Curing the Disease to Rehabilitation; and Instant Advances in Equipment Technology.
Confidence in Ability, Not Shame in Disability
The Japanese athletes who were asked to participate in the 1964 Paralympics likely had very little time to prepare as the institutionalization of sports for disabled people had really only just begun in Japan in the early 1960s. But when placed in a situation that tested their skills on a n international platform, Japanese participants felt a rush of elation at being asked to stretch and compete. The paper, written by Kazuo Ogoura, quotes a Japanese fencer, Shigeo Aono, a Japanese discus thrower, Masayoshi Koike, on the Paralympics:
Some said we were out of our minds for trying to compete in fencing, a traditional western sport, after just eight months of practice. Yet, we rejected the naysayers, followed through with our intentions and managed to win the silver medal…, which gave us a powerful realization that we could do anything if we tried. That sense of confidence gave me strong insight and courage, which has been a guiding force of my life ever since. – Aono
I had so much fun, with my spirit lifted high into the sky. – Koike
An Emerging Independent Mindset
With confidence came the realization for Japanese athletes that they were not disabled, but enabled. They took heart in seeing the foreign athletes in Tokyo, and how they carried themselves, particularly in terms of being independent. The paper cites the example of the Paralympians from Argentina, who “upon arrival in Japan, refused to use a lift vehicle provided by Japanese officials, and used crutches or had their arm around the shoulder of assisting Self-Defense Force personnel to walk down the gangway stairs by themselves to the wheelchairs on the ground.” Ogoura concluded that
Most of the athletes from overseas had worked… and lived a life the same way as able-bodied persons did. This difference forced Japanese Paralympians to face the importance of developing an independent frame of mind.
This understanding extended to the need for disabled people in Japan to take care of their health, and strengthen their bodies.
Another demonstration of overseas athletes’ independent mindset was their day-today efforts to boost their physical strength and athletic abilities. Japanese athletes were reminded of the importance of maintaining and increasing physical strength in daily life, when they witnessed a large number of injuries sustained by their teammates during the Paralympics. Two Japanese athletes suffered Achilles’ tendon injuries and 14 others sustained a range of other injuries during their respective events.
More importantly, people saw in the example of visiting foreigners that it was normal in other countries for people with disabilities to be happy and full of life, quoting an administrator of the Paralympic village, Eiichi Machida:
We were stunned to see overseas athletes in wheelchairs, hanging onto the back of a slow-operating Athlete Village loop bus to hitch a ride. It was sheer astonishment to witness their energy, enjoying themselves at a dance party at the International Club, or catching a taxi at night and loading their wheelchairs as well to go to Shibuya’s entertainment precinct.
Paralympians as Athletes
The common attitude was to treat anyone with disability with kid’s gloves, people who needed constant care and careful handling. But at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, spectators and television viewers saw that the participants were athletes, not victims. Ogoura highlights this example of a Japanese swimmer.
One female athlete from overseas had to be carried by her husband to get into the swimming pool. When the race started, she was left behind the rest straight away. By the time the first swimmer finished the race, she had only just swum about 5 meters. She would start sinking, but get back afloat. Rescue staff was swimming about 2 meters behind her just in case. When she began sinking after so many times, the rescue staff proceeded to help, but her husband on the poolside used a hand gesture to tell them to stop. Two more meters to go…, one more meter… The progress was slow. Applause broke out in the spectators’ stand. After more than three minutes, she finally completed the 25-meter feat.” Episodes like this prompted eminent persons and sporting officials to express the opinion that “Disabled sports must be fostered as regular athletic events.”
Medical Shift from Curing the Disease to Rehabilitation
Another significant effect of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics was the shift in the medical world, where more doctors and institutions realized the need to focus more on rehabilitation, not just on cure or prevention of the disease, that to ignore the state of the disabled, who may have the potential of athletes seen at the 1964 Paralympics, is to ignore the opportunity to bring confidence and joy to a significant part of the population. Ogoura quotes a healthcare worker:
Modern medicine focused too much on diseases and ignored people who suffer from them. It was the case of hunters being too busy looking for deer to look at the mountain itself, as they say in Japanese. Take spinal cord injuries for example. If medicine had focused more on achieving patients’ recovery than merely treating the condition, I have no doubt that those with spinal cord injuries today would have enjoyed a higher level of physical recovery, even joining in on the funfair of the Paralympics.
Instant Advances in Equipment Technology
The exposure to foreign equipment used by the disabled was hugely impactful. When the hundreds of foreign Paralympians, coaches and administrators came to Japan for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, they brought things that Japanese people had never seen, and immediately set the standard for Japan. Ogoura cited wheelchairs:
The greatest technological impact the Paralympics had was on the development and proliferation of equipment and tools for the care of those with disabilities, which were still underdeveloped in Japan at the time. There was a clear performance gap between foreign-made and Japanese wheelchairs and urine collectors, etc. Commenting on this matter, Yutaka Nakamura said, “The difference of wheelchairs was as clear as day. British sport-use wheelchairs weighed 13 kilograms, whereas Japanese wheelchairs were as heavy as 23 kilograms. Overseas players had wheelchairs made to suit their physique, while Japanese sport wheelchairs were the case of one-size-fits-all.
The Japanese could see the difference in performance based on the foreign athletes’ use of the wheelchairs compared to themselves: “Overseas players are bigger but very skilled at handling wheelchairs. We looked more like the wheelchairs were handling us. Then again, the experience gave us confidence that practice would improve our skills.”
The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics caused a monumental mindshift in Japanese culture. Dr. Yutaka Nakamura, one of the key players in making the Tokyo Paralympics happen, wrote in 1964 something that is the essential message of inclusion today:
Our society in general tends to underestimate the capability of people with disabilities. An event like this is significant in that it is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate their capability to the rest of the society.
On Sunday, November 8, 1964, 53 years ago today, commenced the 1964 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. Held over a five-day period, the competition was dominated by the team from the United States, with 123 medals, including 50 gold. The team from Great Britain was a distant second with 61 medals, including 18 gold.
Ron Stein of O’Fallon, Illinois won 8 gold medals. Rosalie Hixson of Crystal Spring, Pennsylvania won six gold medals and a silver. And Tim Harris of Rockford, Illinois took home 11 medals, including 3 gold medals. The total of those three Americans alone would have placed them in sixth place if they were their own country.
Harris contracted polio when he was only 18 months old, but learned how to get around on a wheelchair and crutches so competently that he was competing in wheelchair athletics by the time he entered the University of Illinois. Competing in football, basketball, track and field, swimming, ping pong and archery, clearly Harris was a natural athlete.
But at the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, Harris was repeatedly in the shadow of his University of Illinois teammate, Stein. Harris finished second to Stein in the men’s wheelchair dash, the shot put, the discus throw, the pentathlon, and third to Stein in the javelin and club throw. “Ron earned eight gold medals,” said Harris in a Morning Star article from November 20, 1964. “This was his meet. I certainly never expected to earn 11 medals. I would have been real happy to win just one.”
Harris competed internationally for eight years since his first at the Stoke Mandeville Games in in London in 1963, collecting over 30 gold medals and setting seven world records in his career. He would go on to marry Judy Webb, who won two medals at the third Paralympics held in 1968 in Israel.
The 1960s saw the blossoming of the international competition for disabled athletes. The success of the Tokyo Paralympics helped the general public and organizers alike understand that the disabled were not a helpless class to hide away. “Someone told me before I left (the United States for Japan) that the Japanese left handicapped people out in the cold, but that sure wasn’t the case this year,” said Harris in the Morning Star article. “They went all out for you. The hospitality was simply overwhelming.”
Of Hixson’s accomplishments in Tokyo, Governor Scranton said in this AP article of December 13, 1964, “she is a shining example of the fact that in our state today a handicapped person is not a person without opportunity. Her accomplishment in the Paralympics is a marvelous tribute to her stamina and determination, and it gives me great pride to take this opportunity to salute her as well as her teammates and classmates from the Johnstown Rehabilitation Center on behalf of all my fellow Pennsylvanians.”
Oh there were a bunch of dignitaries there. A Governor. Organizing Committee Head. Olympians. Celebrities. There were proclamations. Couldn’t see it. It was rainy. And I was too late to get to a good spot.
But it was still cool, on October 28, 2017, to celebrate 1,000 Days to the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the Ginza.
At the moment the photo above was snapped, there was 1,000 days and over 4 hours to the start of the Tokyo Olympiad – in other words, 8pm on Friday, July 24, 2020.
We got to see demonstrations of a few of the new events to debut in 2020, like 3-on-3 basketball and sports climbing.
In the case of 3-on-3 basketball, basketball players slipped on the rain-slicked asphalt, but still put on a show. Afterwards, renown kabuki actor Ebizo Ichikawa and Olympic weightlifter Hiromi Miyake showed off their shooting prowess.
This event at the Ginza, still one of the world’s swankiest shopping areas, was an opportunity for Tokyo 2020 local sponsors to promote their linkage to the Olympics.
Here, I put my origami skills to the test to fold a paper crane. I failed…but I still put my heart into it.
On November 29, it will be 1,000 days to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
Bethany Woodward is a silver medalist in the 200 Meters (T37) sprint at the 2012 London Paralympics. She continued her career as a para-athlete, but has become disillusioned about the state of para-athletic competition. The Ringwood, England native made news recently for returning a silver medal won in a competition several years ago, not because she cheated, but because a person on her relay team was not disabled enough.
In this fascinating audio report from the BBC, entitled Paralympic Sport – Fair Play?, Woodward was interviewed regarding the growing issue of “classification cheating.”
The reporter explained that Woodward is classified as a T-37 sprinter. “T” stands for “track,” while 37 is a degree of disability. The lower the number, the greater the impairment. The purpose of the classification system is to create an equal playing field for the competitors. But either because of the challenge of classifying disabilities or purposely interpreting the criteria for a certain classification broadly, athletes can see inequities.
Reporter: Volunteers classify athletes based on how their disability impacts their performance, not on the disability itself. They look at the medical paperwork and the doctor or the physiotherapist does tests. Then a technical classifier, a sports scientist or a coach, for example, will assess the athlete. They’re also watched in competition before their classification is confirmed. Bethany Woodward said after the 2012 Paralympics, the make-up of her class seemed to change.
Woodward: In London there was no one in my classification I thought shouldn’t be there. But then suddenly classes were seemed to be opening up. I have hardly any dorsiflexion in it, or none. And within the criteria for cerebral palsy it said that you shouldn’t have any dorsiflexion . And then there was people coming who had dorsiflexion and I could see that when they were warming up.
Reporter: In other words, they could bend their foot.
Woodward: Yeah, they could bend their foot. So there were physical elements you could see that they were definitely a lot stronger in different areas than you. My cerebral palsy isn’t something that will fluctuate at all. And then you have people coming in who have a medical condition that really fluctuates. One day they could be absolutely fine and one day they are not OK. And we can’t ask for medical evidence because that is something deemed confidential.
When asked why she returned her medal, Woodward explained that nothing has changed since she first raised the issues. “Nothing has changed in a year. There was nothing I could do to fix it, but I can make I can step away with a clear conscience, a voice. In handing that medal back really closes the book for me – I did everything I could for this sport.”
Olivia Breen is a long jumping champion who has cerebral palsy and learning difficulties, and who went to Rio and made it to the finals of the T-38 100-meter finals. According to her father, Michael Breen, one of Olivia’s competitors had relapsing MS, which he felt was unfair when compared to athletes with cerebral palsy like his daughter, because their condition could be in remission at the time of the race, or controlled by drugs. He also claimed that another finalist objected to being classified at all.
What followed in the report was an insightful exchange that speak to the challenges of differentiating subtle differences in conditions.
Reporter: I’ve read interviews with athletes whose impairments have been questioned before an d they say, frankly it’s insulting for people to say that about me. They don’t know my medical history so you don’t know for sure what is or isn’t affection that particular athlete’s performance.
Michael Breen: That’s a really good point. I’m not going to try to justify every person who’s queried someone’s disability because it’s not possible. What I’m saying is, there is something fundamentally wrong with classification. It’s not fit for purpose and it’s broken.