Eri Yamamoto and Yamawaki

Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald navigates the world in a wheelchair. No matter how fast this para-athlete swims, or how many goals she scores as an ice sledge hockey competitor, or how many kilograms she pushes into the air as a competitive powerlifter, when people see her, they see someone who needs help.

At an American Chamber of Commerce Japan event on June 2, 2017, Yamamoto-MacDonald of The Nippon Foundation told a fairly typical story, for her, of going to a store to buy rice. When she got to the cashier to pay for a 5kg bag of rice, the person working there took notice of her wheelchair and asked her, “are you able to carry that bag of rice?” She understood the person was not acting mean, but she was frustrated that as a power weightlifter, who lifts 50 kilograms in competition, is seen as so helpless that she can’t lift 5. “They are not seeing me as an athlete. They are seeing me as a disabled person.”

For joint speakers, Yamamoto-MacDonald, as well as Yasushi Yamawaki, also of the Nippon Foundation and president of the Japan Paralympic Committee, it is their mission to change the perceptions of people regarding individuals with impairments. “It’s not about disability, it’s about ability,” said Yamawaki. “We take the word ‘impossible’, and add an apostrophe between the ‘I’ and the ‘m’, because we like to say ‘I’m possible’. To us, nothing is impossible.”

Yamamoto-MacDonald, who has not had the use of her legs since birth, has been working in the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center with a goal of bringing social change to Japan. It’s important to change the tangibles, she said, designing infrastructure and venues to make it easier for people with impairments to navigate and take advantage of their surroundings. But it’s more important to deal with the intangibles. “Changing peoples’ minds is more important. Having them watch high performance para-athletes can change people’s perceptions towards people with disabilities.”

Nippon Foundation produces an Education Toolkit, called “I’m Possible”, which they distribute to schools throughout the country. So far they have handed out 23,000 toolkits nationwide. Nippon Foundation has organized visits by para-athletes to over 100 elementary, junior high and high schools last year. The plan is to visit 250 schools in 2017 and 1,000 by 2020.

The education is important because it is often the social environment that highlights the disability of an individual, as Yamamoto-MacDonald explained. If the work environment of a person with an impairment allows that person to move about and do the things he or she wants or needs to do, the so-called disability can be rendered unnoticeable. But if the physical environment caters to so-called able-bodied people only, and the surrounding individuals consciously or unconsciously behave or speak in a way that ignores or demeans those with impairments, then as Yamamoto-MacDonald observed, the social environment creates the disability.

She explained that at her workplace in the Nippon Foundation, everyone works to chip away at both the tangible and intangible barriers people with impairments face. However, while her workplace allows her to live a relatively normal life, she finds Japanese society less accommodating. “Japanese people are very polite. But in public, they are not. If I’m traveling by train, I need to use the elevators. But people who have the option of stairs and escalators push their way in front of me to get into the elevators.” She said that in contrast, while London still needed to make improvements to infrastructure, they had a better mindset, even back in 2012.

Yamamoto MacDonald and Roy

At the London Paralympics, I worked at the Japan House to build awareness for the Tokyo 2020 bid. To get to the venue I had to take public transpiration. I got off at a station where there were no elevators. The officers told me that I had to get off at the station before this one. But they made sure I got to the venue. The people’s mindset is very important, even without all of the infrastructure. I got to where I needed to go in London. Tokyo doesn’t have that mindset. People need to care a little more. It would be better to have more accessibility, but it is accessibility in the heart that is more important.

Yamamoto-MacDonald talked about how important it is for companies to expose themselves more to people with impairments, and to understand that engaging with a wider variety of people is an opportunity. In fact, she said that CSR, which stands for Corporate Social Responsibility, should really be re-labeled CSO, or Corporate Social Opportunity. It’s an opportunity for corporations and wider society to understand the power of diversity and inclusion. But it is also a way to expand opportunities for people like her. This is key for two reasons: to motivate those with impairments who feel different and isolated, as well as to unlock the potential abilities in the disabled.

I never got asked about my hobbies, or what sports I like. When I was 9, I was so shy. I couldn’t say “thank you”. Why is it only me who has to say “thank you” all the time, I thought. I couldn’t say “thank you” back because I felt I couldn’t help anyone. But when I began swimming, I gained confidence. I swam faster, faster than even able-bodied swimmers. That’s when I started saying “thank you”. As I grew more confident, I began to dream of being a Paralympian, going to the Paralympics. Since I began having that dream, it has become my identity.

An injury at 16 made it difficult for Yamamoto-MacDonald to continue her swimming career. She went to Canada and became proficient at ice sledge hockey, but she also understood this kind of hockey was not yet a Paralympics event. When she returned to Japan, she did not have a specialization that could focus her training for 2020, until she stumbled upon powerlifting.

Last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan government sponsored a special event – a power-lifting exhibition. I saw big guys lifting hundreds of kilograms. My boss told me to give it a try. I grabbed 20kg and it was light! It was fun! I saw other women stop at 20kg but I was able to lift 40 kg. Since then I have been powerlifting.

She explained we rarely see powerlifting on television or live. There are very few events and opportunities, and the opportunities for people with impairments to see para-athletes is very low. “You have to meet the right people for the right chance to come around.” And that is something Yamawaki explained is key to driving societal change – the need to create greater exposure of para-athletes to society to show what is possible.

Yamawaki ended the talk with a video from the International Paralympics Committee. As you can see in the video below, there is a strong push to bring sports opportunities to youth with impairments, that motivating them earlier in their lives will lead them to greater choices and fuller lives.

“It’s not about what people can’t do, it’s what they can do,” he said.

Reminder: If you have a design for a mascot you believe is killer kawaii, and would be perfect representing the Tokyo2020 Olympics, start working on it now! The design contest is on, and the submission period lasts from August 1 – 14. See this link for details!

As a benchmark, here are two you should be able to beat.

Schuss the mascot

Schuss – 1968 Grenoble Winter Games Mascot

You would think that Japan would have had a mascot for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. But the first mascot to represent an Olympic Games appeared at the Grenoble Winter Games in 1968 was “Schuss”.

This cartoonish representation of a skiier, whose outsized head with large eyes wide apart, sits on an abstract blue body of plastic bent in two places, connected to skis. The first word out of my mouth – creepy. (That’s probably why it got the nickname “The Skiing Sperm”. )

The word “Schuss” actually means a fast and straight downhill run, but it might as well be the sound other’s make when you try to bring up this mascot in conversation.

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Wenlock and Mandeville – 2012 London Mascots

Here is a case where intuition goes out the window. Wenlock and Mandeville were the mascots of the 2012 London Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Just looking at them, I don’t know what to call them except walking eyeballs. The names refer to two places in England: Much Wenlock in Shropshire and Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

Much Wenlock was where Dr Penny Brookes organized a rural fair in the mid-19th century that included a variety of sporting events loosely based on ancient Olympic ideas. Stoke Mandeville Hospital was the site of the first Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948, often cited as a significant precursor to the Paralympics.

And yet, what do I see? Two walking eyeballs.

 

Japanese Mascots
What it might look like at a Japanese mascot convention

 

In the land of kawaii (cute), where sports teams, companies, and cities have their own mascots, The Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is offering you a chance to animate that essence of joy you experienced as a child.

Tokyo 2020 has requested the Japanese public to submit their designs for the mascots of the Tokyo 2020 Games – both the Olympics and Paralympics. Whether you’re a professional illustrator or a convenience store freeter, you can submit a design, although you need to be 18 years or older. Non-Japanese living in Japan are also eligible.

An entry can be submitted by a group as well. The group can have a max of 10 people in it. Above age and nationality conditions apply to all group members.

Start working on those lovable characters now, because the design submission period is August 1 – 14.

But be forewarned. Shortlisted designs will have a tough group of evaluators. The organizing committee requires that elementary school classes across Japan, the international schools, will vote and thus end up selecting the winner.

That’s a pretty cool idea actually

So here’s the brief from Tokyo 2020, and here’s the timeline:

  • August 1 to 14, 2017 – design submission period (submission via a special website)
  • December 2017 – mascot panel selects shortlist of design sets
  • December 2017 to January 2018 – elementary school children vote on the shortlist
  • March 2018 – design set with the largest number of votes is announced as the winner
  • July to August 2018 – mascot panel decides names for the winning mascots

Good luck!

 

PS: Read the fine print on intellectual property in the brief!

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Representatives of various National Olympic Committees are given tours of 26 Olympic venues, including Ajinomoto Stadium in Tokyo on Monday. | PHOTO COURTESY OF TOKYO 2020 / UTA MUKUO / VIA KYODO
When you think about the number of events in an Olympic Games, and the varied types and sizes of venues required for a mega-sports event like the Olympics, one wonders why we would saddle an emerging economy with such a beast of a logistics and budget burden. Sochi, Rio and Athens are recent examples of this challenge.

While Japan was an emerging economy in 1964, its economy was booming and could absorb the massive change and cost with ease. And when we look at the Paris and Los Angeles bids for 2024, one gets the sense that they are at an advantage due to their already massive and modern infrastructure along with its varied and numerous sports facilities packed into their metropolitan areas.

Tokyo has that advantage as well and was able to propose in its bid that 90 percent of the sports venues would be within 8 kilometers of the Olympic Village. Tokyo2020 has framed the physical footprint in an infinity loop which encloses two areas: the Heritage Zone and the Tokyo Bay Zone. The Heritage Zone represents facilities that are in and around the area of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Shinjuku – Yoyogi area. That would include the location of the National Stadium, both then and in 2020. The Tokyo Bay Zone is primarily reclaimed land about 3.2 km southeast of central Tokyo. This will include the site of the Olympic Village in Harumi.

On February 10, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee hosted visitors from the National Olympic Committees from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and New Zealand. For three days they got a guided tour of 26 of the approximately 40 venues planned for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And the reviews, apparently, are good.

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Heritage and Tokyo Bay Zones
Here are a few comments from Luke Pelligrini, the acting general manager of games support and operations for the Australian Olympic Committee:

  • Across all the NOCs in the bus yesterday, everyone was saying this is going to be a good games. Everyone is confident that it’s on track, ahead of the game at the moment and will continue to be.
  • (Some of the venues) looked like they could run sporting events next week. The taekwondo and fencing venue (Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture) literally looked like it could stage sporting events next week if it needed to. The 1964 stadiums for table tennis, the water polo, they look ready to go now. In that respect, we are thrilled. We don’t see anything, 3½ years out, that is a concern to us. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the experience
  • The most impressive thing is how central 70 percent of the venues are. We were amazed at the location of the Olympic village literally being downtown. That is a fantastic opportunity for our athletes to experience the games and also Tokyo. It is a very central location to get to the venues for all our athletes.

Here is a great video explaining the venue locations planned for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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Brazil captain Neymar broke down in tears after scoring the penalty that earned his country’s first ever football gold medal (Photo: Getty Images)

Brazil had so much to be proud of at the 2016 Rio Olympics:

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What will people be wearing for Halloween? To be honest, sports is not the greatest well from which ideas spew. But here are a few ideas, which are clearly influenced by pop culture in America.

Be Ryan Lochte: Jimmy Fallon did it. You can do it. Go to this website for the items you need to be the great American Olympic swimmer, who turned into an overnight PR disaster….for a little less than USD500.

Be a Gymnast: Little girls all over America will dress up as The Final Five, no doubt. Just don’t try to buy an original Final Five leotard. The leotards, with their glittering Swarvorski crystals, cost anywhere from USD700 to 1,200 to make each one. My guess it’s easy to find replicas for cheaper. One of the more popular people to honor with a Halloween costume was Fierce Five gold-medal champion, McKayla Maroney, whose look of disappointment on the medal stand turned into a internet meme. Three years ago, a woman with Bell’s Palsy dressed up like Maroney because “It was the first time in months I got to look like I was intentionally making a face and it has helped me deal with the slow recovery a little better.”

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 Be Original: Paralympian Josh Sundquist, who lost his left leg due to cancer, has competed in the Paralympics as an alpine skiier, and is a popular motivational speaker. He is also known for his one-of-a-kind costumes for Halloween. See him put together his outfit as “Lumiere” a character (essentially a talking candle stick) from the film, Beauty and the Beast.

Be a Kid and Have No Choice: Shaun White is a two-time Winter Olympics gold medalist in the halfpipe, but when he was a kid, his parents put him in prison for Halloween – old-school lock up  style that is. Here he is, with his two older siblings, in a TBT Halloween picture from three years ago.

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Shaun White center

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For those of us in Japan, now thinking of how we are going to get ready for Tokyo 2020, the handover ceremony from Rio to Tokyo still resonates.

For eight minutes at the end of the Rio Olympics, Japan was given the spotlight. And the light shone brightly on Japan’s technology, fashion, arts, children and of course, Tokyo. They even made the solemn national anthem somewhat modern and uplifting with the stunning focus on the hi-no-maru, the red circle on white that symbolically represents the country.

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Tokyo2020 recently shared a video of this ceremony’s production, which is fascinating. These are the kinds of intense, complex projects that I would absolutely love to be a part of.

Global marketing and advertising powerhouse, Dentsu, was hired to create the closing handover ceremonies for Tokyo2020 for both the Rio Olympics and Rio Paralympics. Dentsu was paid JPY1.2 billion (USD12 million) to produce these segments, and of the big decisions they made was to include globally reknown cartoon characters: Doraemon and Super Mario.

Clearly, the transformation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe into Super Mario and back again was the highlight of the handover ceremony. And interestingly, Nintendo is reported to have paid nothing to have one of its characters be front and center.

Four more years to go. So much to do, so little time.

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RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – SEPTEMBER 10: Sophie Pascoe of New Zealand celebrates after winning a gold medal in the Women’s 100m Backstroke S10 final on day 3 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Olympic Aquatics Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images for the New Zealand Paralympic Committee) Getty Images

I’ve never spoken publicly about Sophie’s accident before; I’ve always kept it to myself. I don’t think I’ve really recovered from it, actually. It just leaves a black dot in my life. You never get over something like that. Never. It haunts me to this day; it absolutely haunts me.

“It” is an accident that occurred in 1995, one that Garry Pascoe had refused to talk about until the release of the biography of swimming giant, Sophie Pascoe in 2013. What had been known was that Garry accidentally ran a power lawn mower over her 2-year-old daughter, and as a result, Sophie had to have her left leg amputated below the knee.

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Sophie Pascoe getting ready_Kirk Hargreaves/Fairfax NZ

To the credit of the Pascoes, Sophie took charge of her life. Amazingly, she claims in this article from The Telegraph that the accident was “the best thing that ever happened to me”. That is very hard to believe, but it is also hard to argue with her results.

At the age of 7, she learned how to swim, and has never looked back. Eight years later, Sophie Pascoe of Christchurch New Zealand won three gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. By the time she turned 23, she was a veteran Paralympian, having won a total of 15 medals over the past three Paralympic cycles, including 9 golds.

Pascoe’s father, Garry, quite understandably, had not publicly discussed the accident. But when Sophie’s biography, Sophie Pascoe – Stroke of Fate, came out, so too did the state of mind of her father on that horrible day of September 23, 1995. Here’s an excerpt from the book published in a New Zealand paper, The Press.

I was mowing the raised section of lawn and was in low gear because the surface was a wee bit bumpy. Blow me dead, I went to go in reverse and the mower wouldn’t move. I thought what the s… has happened?’ I looked down and there was Sophie under the mower.

It devastates me to think about it even now. I picked Sophie up and ran next door to the nearest neighbours. But they couldn’t help so I ran to Alistair Bull’s place. We got into his car and shot straight through Halswell up Lincoln Road towards the hospital.

Sophie’s father goes on to relate in the excerpt some rather uncomfortable details. Only two years old at the time, Sophie made it through six hours of surgery. And while she has gone on to tremendous achievements as a swimmer, he cannot erase the memory of that day.

Her swimming success has taken a lot of the pain away. But it will never take away the memory. You just live with it. It’s a big hurdle to live with but I have.

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Dylan Alcott playing in the finals of wheelchair tennis at the Rio Paralympics.

Wheelchair tennis is so much about anticipation and commitment. A wheelchair can’t move as abruptly or quickly as the human body, so wheelchair athletes have to make earlier decisions to move to a space as they require more time to go from A to B, even with the rule that allows a ball to bounce twice before returning it.

Other than that, wheelchair tennis is the same as the tennis we see from the likes of the Williams’ sisters, Federer, Nadal and Murray. Playing angles. Serving wide and volleying into open court. Lobbing and dropping shots. Fighting over line calls.

Brit Andy Lapthorne and Aussie Dylan Alcott represent the best of competitive wheelchair tennis, and they played each other in the Quad singles wheelchair tennis finals at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Alcott defeated Lapthorne 6-3, 6-4 to bring home the gold for Australia.

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Alcott is an athlete. He not only won gold in men’s quad singles and quad doubles in Rio, he also won gold in Beijing and silver in London on Australia’s men’s wheelchair basketball team.

But when the 25-year-old thinks back to his 12-year-old self, the confident Alcott remembers a totally different person. “I was an insecure kid about my disability,” he said post-match. “A few kids used to call me a cripple, and I hate that word. I used to believe them. If you told me back then when I was 12 and not wanting to go to school that I’d be a triple Paralympic gold medalist across two sports, I would have said ‘get stuffed’.”

Sports has become the open door for so many people who have been considered “disabled”. And with the growing importance of achievement in international competitions like the Paralympics, more funds are being invested in the training and support of disabled athletes. The governing body of tennis in Alcott’s country, Tennis Australia, has supported the growth and popularity of tennis in Australia, including those wheelchair bound. Alcott credits Tennis Australia in this Sydney Morning Herald article.this link

Tennis Australia sat me down and said if you want to do this properly, we’ll support you. And I said ‘I don’t want to be supported like a wheelchair tennis player, I want to be supported as a tennis player, like Nick Kyrgios is, or Sam Stosur is. I don’t care that I’m in a wheelchair. If you treat me equally to them, I’ll do it. And they did, and they gave me everything that I wanted. They treat me as if I’m Roger Federer.

Alcott is likely unknown to most of us, but for those kids in wheelchairs, with boundless energy trapped inside, he is a role model and a hero.

“I’ve got an income, I travel the world. I love my life,” Alcott said as he basked in the elation of his gold medal achievement.

And like all champions, the road has been long and hard. You know it has. You can see it in the warm embrace Alcott and Lapthorne share at the end of the match, which you can watch at this link.

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Can you guess which one Mehrzad is?

At nearly 2.5 meters tall, there are very, very few people in the world taller than Mr Morteza “Mehrzad” Mehrzadselakjani of Iran. And as it turned out, this giant of a man led his Iranian volleyball team to Paralympic gold in Rio last month. In the finals against Bosnia Herzegovina, Iran outspiked their opponents 59-42, and Mehrzad, as he is popularly known , slammed home 26 of those spikes.

That is to be expected in the sport of Paralympic volleyball, where athletes are all sitting. These paralympic athletes play by normal volleyball rules, except that the net is only 1.15 meters high. Mehrzad, even when he is sitting, has a reach of over 6 meters. So it’s no wonder that this Persian paralympian can dominate a match.

One would think that being so tall would be a wonderful advantage. But in fact, Mehrzad fractured his pelvis in a bicycle accident when he was 16, which somehow stunted the growth of his right leg, which is now about 15 centimeters shorter than the left. Because of that, and the fact that he suffers from a rare condition known as acromegaly that results in abnormal growth, he has not had an easy life.

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Mehrzad spiking his team to victory in the Rio Paralympics sitting volleyball finals.

Relegated to a wheelchair and crutches due to his legs, and insecure due to his appearance, Mehrzad suffered from depression. But then one day, five years ago, a coach saw Mehrzad on television and believed that he could be a great paralympic athlete. “I was alone, I was depressed,” he told Iranian TV about his life growing up. “But my life has changed from playing sitting volleyball and being a Paralympian.”

See Mehrzad in action in the video below.