James Wong at 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta_@jameswong6

Like so many 14 year olds around the world, James Wong watched swimming sensation, Michael Phelps, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with awe. Wong wanted to be Michael Phelps one day….albeit the one-armed version.

Born without a left arm, the native of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia didn’t know anything about the Paralympics at the time. But his father found a grainy YouTube video of the men’s SB8 100m breaststroke finals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, and pointed out one of the swimmers – Andreas Onea of Austria.

“My dad noticed Andreas was only a few years older than me, and he had a similar build,” said Wong. “He felt relatable. I watched how he swam in that video and tried to see how he was doing it. Basically, that video kind of helped set in stone the vision of what I wanted to achieve. Prior to this, I didn’t actually know what para sport even looked like.”

Eleven years later, Wong was at the World Para Swimming Championships in London. It was a tough time. He was jetlagged. He swam poorly. His chances of making the Tokyo2020 Paralympics were diminished. But he finally got to meet Onea, who was pleasantly surprised to meet Wong. After all, five other swimmers finished better than him at the finals during that competition, so he wondered why Wong liked Onea’s swimming so much.

Andreas Onea at the Tokyo2020 Paralympics_courtesy of Andreas Onea

But Wong then told Onea the story of the YouTube video in 2008. Onea said he was touched.

The Paralympics can have an impact on my life and on the world population. I realized that in 2019, when I was at the London world championships in swimming, and James told me that the first swimming competition he ever saw was the final at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics on the 100-meter breaststroke. And this was the day, he told me, that he wanted to compete in the Paralympics, that he wanted to be a professional swimmer like Andreas Onea. I was emotionally impressed by the story when he told me. Without knowing me, because of me, just seeing me swim, he wanted to swim also.

Andreas Onea, who won a bronze medal in the 100-meter breaststroke SB8 at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, competed at the Tokyo2020 Paralympics. He did not medal this time, but Onea has developed a successful media career in television and print, as well as a motivational speaker. He understands how important it is for persons with disabilities, some 15% of the entire world population, to be given opportunities to lead fuller lives that help them approach their full potential.

Guest speaker, Onea, at a webinar “Tokyo 2020 Paralympics – One Day to Go!” hosted by the Paralliance, a coalition of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan supporting the Paralympics.

We are 15% of the world population,” said Onea. “In Austria, companies are looking for talent. They are fighting over the best talent for their workforce. This is a high potential pool that no one is tapping into. People think they will have problems with figuring out how to bring them into the workforce. These issues are things proven wrong. There are so many companies doing amazing things with people with disabilities.”

Wong told me that swimming gave him those opportunities.

In 2008, he was spotted by the national swimming head coach of Malaysia, Lewin Lim, and was told he had potential as a swimmer. Over the next 11 years, Wong was introduced to a whole new world of training, travel and competition.  He competed for the first time in a tournament in Borneo, which was another part of Malaysia. But it could have been a foreign country as the people and the culture felt so different to Wong.

And when he came away with a gold and silver medal a the 2009 Asian Youth Games in Tokyo, Japan, he imagined one day winning Paralympic gold. Guangzhou in China, Berlin in Germany, Solo in Indonesia, Naypyidaw in Myanmar – Wong was going places he never could imagine.

In 2012, he moved to Australia. His parents thought it would be great if their son could get an education overseas. Because Wong’s hero, para-swimming champion, Matt Cowdrey,  was from Australia, Wong looked down under and targeted the University of Adelaide, which was located relatively near the Norwood Swimming Club.

James Wong at the Norwood Swimming Club_@jameswong6

Wong worked hard to balance academic life and the rigors of training at the world-class level. At the 2014 Asian para Games in Incheon, South Korea, Wong finished 4th in the 50-meter Freestyle S8, behind the top two in the world, and another who was a finalist at the 2012 London Paralympics. And in 2016, he graduated from university.

Wong did not make the Malaysian team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. In fact, Wong has never competed in a Paralympics. But para-swimming changed his life.

The 2019 World Para Swimming Championships was his last major competition, but it gave him the credentials to apply for and receive permanent residence in Australia through a talent visa, not something that the Australian government hands out liberally.

Wong has continued his studies and is pursuing his masters in accounting and finance at the University of Adelaide, which he hopes to leverage into an opportunity at a Big Four accounting firm after he graduates in 2022. He’s happy about his future, something that he owes to swimming.

“Through swimming I met an amazing number of people I would not have met otherwise,” he said. “Without it, I’d have a completely different life.”

Andreas Onea and James Wong meeting for the first time in London in 2019_courtesy of Andreas Onea
Tomonari Kuroda goal scores first goal in Team Japan’s first appearance in Blind Soccer in the Paralympics (秋月正樹撮影)

Tomonari Kuroda stripped the ball at mid-field, dribbled deftly between his left and right feet, shifting sharply to his left to elude two defenders and sending a sharp drive off of his left insole, the ball shooting by the French goalkeeper.

Kuroda  did that with a black mask covering his eyes. He couldn’t see the ball go in, as he is visually impaired, but he could hear the reaction of his teammates. Team Japan, in its first ever match in blind soccer in the Paralympics, scored its first goal a little over three minutes into the game in amazing fashion.

Japan went on to win its first match over France 4-0 in a display of skill and teamwork. There are 22 sports categories in the 2020 Paralympics, an opportunity for athletes with disabilities to show off their athleticism, and for the very best, to win medals.

But like the world of work, where people with disabilities are employed in departments and teams, they work best when performing in synch with their colleagues. And in fact, people with disabilities can do their very best when their colleagues and technology can provide accomodations or remove barriers to performance, and create an environment where disabilities fade into the background.

In the workplace, accomodations could include the provision of doors that open automatically for people in wheelchairs, or sign language interpreters in meetings for the hearing impaired, or screen reader software for the visually impaired. These are examples of basic accomodations that can be made to create a more equitable environment for the disabled.

In the case of blind soccer, there are the accommodations of having a ball that makes a tinkling sound when rolling, allows a guide behind the opponent’s net as well as the sighted team coach to guide their players verbally, as well as a goalkeeper who is sighted and able bodied, and can also shout out guidance to his teammates.

The rules for blind soccer, or Football 5-a-side as it is called by the International Paralympic Committee, is an exercise in enhancing equity. The accomodations created by the rules allow people who are visually impaired to play a game of soccer that allows for demonstrations of extraordinary skill, teamwork and performance. In essence, the rules create the perception that the athletes are performing on an equal playing field.

To drive home the importance of the teamwork between people with disabilities and those without, the goalkeepers of the top three teams in the Paralympics take home a medal too. In fact, that is the case with able-bodied people who assist players in Boccia BC3 class, visually impaired triathletes (where the “guide” runs, cycles and helps change the uniforms of the para-athlete), as well as B Class cyclsts (where the “pilot” sits up front in a tandem bike). Here is a great Nippon Foundation article that provides the details.

The concept of equity is getting a lot of attention in the Diversity and Inclusion world, as practitioners realize that driving equity in the workplace is a more accurate approach than trying to drive equality. This difference is explained very well in this article from the Milken Institute School of Public Health:

Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.  

The Paralympics and parasports in general are not striving, at this stage, to achieve “equality” for persons with disabilities in sport. While Kuroda’s first goal was stunning, and might make people think that he can actually see, no one is saying he should start playing on Team Japan’s Olympic squad, or any soccer squad made up of sighted players.

But given the accomodations provided by they International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA), soccer players who are visually impaired can experience the thrills and spills, aches and pains, and self-affirming achievements and victories of the team sport often called “the beautiful game.”

Yui Wagou, as the one-winged plane in the Opening Ceremony_Yomiuri Shimbun

This was an opening ceremony of conviction.

This was an opening ceremony with a message.

And when conviction and message come together, you get goosebumps.

 

The opening ceremony of the Tokyo2020 Paralympics was electrifying, its Olympic counterpart paling in comparison.

 

The Tokyo2020 Olympics lacked conviction and a clear message, not because the officials, like IOC president Thomas Bach, lacked confidence, or the right words to say about the importance of the Games. It’s because the Japanese public lacked confidence in the organizers’ motivations – many were not prepared to listen as infection rates in Japan continued to climb.

 

But that may not have been the case with the Paralympics, at least with the public’s perception of the opening ceremonies. Japan’s Twitterverse reaction was positive, if not enthusiastic.

In contrast to the subtlety and vagueness of the Olympics opening ceremony, there was a consistent story told throughout the Paralympics opening ceremony, showcased by the theater of the one-winged airplane, with the theme “We Have Wings.” This show had energy!

 

The shifting expressions of the 13-year-old junior high school student, Yui Wagou were captivating. The wheelchair-bound first-time actress portrayed a small plane with only one wing, and her face portrayed beautifully the transformation from a sheltered, timid girl to a little plane that could.

 

Part of the trigger for the one-winged plane’s transformation was a legion of role models, led by Japanese rock legend, Tomoyasu Hotei, who brought explosive energy to the Stadium with his electric guitar. There was the ballet dancer with one leg, Kouichi Ohmae and the one-armed violinist, Manami Itou, who also explained through their performances that one wing is enough.

The story of the one-winged plane was in two parts, with speeches in the middle. Andrew Parsons, the president of the International Paralympic Committee had the unenviable position of speaking right after, Seiko Hashimoto, head of the Tokyo2020 organizing committee, who’s appearance created moans of disappointment across Japan. Many departed for the kitchen and restroom, hoping to be spared the words of a person who, in their minds, does not listen.

 

Andrew Parsons is a relative unknown to the Japanese public. He hasn’t been vilified by the press for shopping in the Ginza, as his counterpart in the IOC has. And Parsons did not shy away from his opportunity. Instead, he leaned in. He shouted with passion. He gestured powerfully. And he sent a message, above and beyond the requisite thank yous to the organizers for making Tokyo2020 happen.

 

Parsons launched a movement – WeThe15. He emphasized that the IPC and its partners were here “to change the entire world” by bringing attention not just to the para-athletes in front of him, but to the 1.2 billion people around the world who have disabilities, or 15% of the world population. He said that the IPC and the International Disability Alliance, along with a broad-based network of civil society, business and media organizations, will work every year to make a difference.

 

Over the next 10 years, WeThe15 will challenge how the world’s 15% with disabilities are perceived and treated at a global level. With the support of 20 international organizations, civil society, the business sector, and the media, we will put the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities firmly at the heart of the inclusion agenda.

 

Parsons noted that the pandemic has been a struggle for everybody, and is particularly a time when people have to come together, indirectly referencing the flaming of fear of the other, which leads to hate and discrimination.

 

When humanity should be united in its fight against COVID 19, there is a destructive desire by some to break this harmony. Overlooking what brings us together, to focus on the factors that differentiate us, fuels discrimination. It weakens what we can achieve together as a human race. Difference is a strength, not a weakness and as we build back better, the post-pandemic world must feature societies where opportunities exist for all.

 

Parsons then brought us down from the helicopter view of WeThe15 and the need for global diversity, and honed in on the reason they are all in Tokyo – the athletes.

 

Paralympians, you gave your all to be here. Blood, sweat, and tears. Now is your moment to show to the world your skill, your strength, your determination. If the world has ever labelled you, now is your time to be re-labelled: champion, hero, friend, colleague, role model, or just human. You are the best of humanity and the only ones who can decide who and what you are.

 

The Paralympics are about celebrating diversity, and creating role models for a generation of persons with disabilities, showing them they too can fly.

 

In 2012, it was “Meet the Superhumans,” with images of heroic para-athletes.

In 2016, it was “We’re the Superhumans,” heroic para-athletes mixed in with images of everyday folk.

In 2021, it’s “Super. Human.” with the emphasis on Human.

Channel 4, the official broadcaster of the Paralympics in the UK, has, since the 2012 Games, captured and shaped the pop culture view of the para-athlete, and in a broader way, those with disability. Through the eyes of Channel 4, our view of the disabled has evolved.

In 2012, we needed our attention grabbed to even think of the circumstances of the disabled. For many, the para-athlete had to be portrayed as superhuman, placed on a pedestal so we could start a conversation about how inspiring the disabled are.

But the para-athlete no longer wants to be your inspiration, no longer desires to pose on your pedestal.

As disability rights activist and writer, Penny Pepper said in reaction to the 2016 Superhumans video, “the superhuman shtick is a tiresome diversion away from what is important. Let us be ordinary, let us be every day and let us at least have rights. Rights to independent living.”

People with disabilities want you to know that they are you, and you are they – just another person trying to get along in life.

A recently released video captures that tone perfectly: a man in a wheelchair responds to adoring statements of how inspiring the disabled are, with a single word of defiance.

“Bull$#!+.”

That short film is the clarion call for the “WeThe15” campaign, symbolizing the estimated 15% of the global population that are disabled. Launched on the eve of the Tokyo2020 Paralympic Games, WeThe15 “aspires to be the biggest ever human rights movement to represent the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities.”

If people with disabilities had its own country, it would be the third largest in the world.

In other words, one out of every seven of your own family members, friends and colleagues have some form of disability, who may be marginalized or discriminated in some way.

It’s possible that you are treating people with disabilities in ways that are perceived as patronizing, divisive or hurtful without realizing it.

As the WeThe15 film explains, people with disabilities are not “the other.” They are the same as you.

People call us special, but there’s nothing special about us. We have mortgages. We kill houseplants. We watch reality TV. We get sunburned on holiday. We get married. We swipe right. We go on first dates, and get lucky too.

WeThe15 is a broad-based alliance of global organizations related to sports, human rights, policy, business, arts and entertainment, led primarily by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the International Disability Alliance (IDA).

“WeThe15 is a decade long campaign bringing together the biggest coalition of international organizations ever to work towards a common goals: to end discrimination and transform the lives of the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities who make up 15% of the global population,” said Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer.

“This could be a game changer of a campaign looking to initiate change from governments, business and the general public.  By doing so we can place disability at the heart of the diversity and inclusion agenda.”

Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo Bay in Purple, courtesy of Craig Spence

The goals of WeThe15, which are aligned to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, are to change attitudes and create more opportunities by:

  • Putting persons with disabilities at the heart of the diversity and inclusion agenda,
  • Implementing a range of activities targeting governments, businesses, and the public to drive social inclusion for persons with disabilities,
  • Breaking down societal and systemic barriers that are preventing persons with disabilities from fulfilling their potential and being active members of society,
  • Ensuring greater awareness, visibility, and representation of persons with disabilities, and
  • Promoting the role of assistive technology as a vehicle to driving social inclusion.

During the Tokyo Paralympics, you will see many references to Wethe15, including public light ups in purple, the symbolic color of inclusivity.

It is time to stand up for the 15, not because they are special, but because they are just like you.

So while the pedestals are nice, and the pity tolerated, we are not “special.” That’s not what it’s like. That’s not our reality. And only when you see us as one of you, wonderfully ordinary, wonderfully human, only then can we all break down these barriers that keep us apart.

– from the WeThe15 campaign film

Tokyo Skytree, courtesy of Craig Spence
Toshiya Kakiuchi, president of Mirairo

These are comments from Toshiya Kakiuchi, the president of Mirairo, a universal design consultancy based in Tokyo, who gave a talk on June 28, 2021 at Mirairo House. Relegated to a wheelchair since elementary school, Kakiuchi started Mirairo at  the age of 21 in 2010.

Today, Mirairo provides consulting services to some of the biggest names in the Japanese corporate world, with a strong focus on marketing research relevant to disabled consumers.

 

When Tokyo won the bid for the 2020 Olympics, a lot changed.

The Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway systems had wheelchair accessible elevators in 70% of all stations in 2014. It is now up to 95.3%. There are now maps available online that provide a lot of details about locations in Tokyo that are or are not barrier free. I can see a lot of TV commercials and programs that feature disabled people.

In 2013, companies didn’t know how to cater to the disabled. We have taught them about universal design. We helped them understand by experiencing what it is like to be disabled. The awareness of the need to be barrier free has grown, and many now realize we need to design products and services without creating barriers.

In some ways, the pandemic has helped improve understanding of the disabled. Because COVID has changed the way we work, I no longer have to apologize for teleworking. But there is a bigger issue. The need for social distance has meant the number of people visible on the streets has decreased significantly, including the disabled. The problem is, the less frequently society sees the disabled out and about, the less society may care about the disabled.

There still a lot to do, but Japan has changed since 2013. People’s attitude towards me has changed. I think that is because of Tokyo’s drive to become barrier free before the start of Tokyo2020.

 

Mirairo House

Kakiuchi gave these comments on Monday, June 28, 2021 at Mirairo House, an area on the 5th floor of Marui Department Store in Kinshicho, Tokyo managed by Mirairo.

Mirairo House is dedicated to providing space for providers to market products and services to the disabled, and hopefully sparking greater innovation among their business partners.

Oh, the places I could have gone!

The men’s and women’s 10,000 meter finals! The men’s 100 meter sprint finals! The women’s 100m hurdles final! The men’s long jump final! The men’s 4X100 relay sprint finals!

The debut of karate! The women’s basketball gold medal game! The men’s basketball gold medal game!

Volleyball! 3X3 basketball! Wrestling!

And tickets to the coveted Closing Ceremonies!

Despite Covid, Tokyo2020 was going to happen and I had tickets to some of the most anticipated moments of these Games.

And then, suddenly, I didn’t.

 

Dreams Dashed

When the IOC and Tokyo2020 organizers announced on March 20 that overseas spectators would not be allowed to attend the Games, I was immediately saddened, of course for the parents and supporters of athletes who could not witness the accomplishments of their Olympians, but also because I might not be able to either.

I was unable to secure tickets to the Olympics during the lotteries held in Japan, but I was able to purchase them through the American authorized ticket reseller (ATR), Co-Sport. I held out hope that as a foreigner already living in Japan that I would be given the option to use my tickets.

But alas, that would not be possible. As I was informed this morning in an email from Co-Sport, my ticket order will be made invalid automatically. “Whether you choose to complete and submit the refund form, all ticket orders will be cancelled as a result of the international spectator ban imposed by the Japanese Government.”

To make matters worse, I likely won’t see a refund for many months, and I will not be reimbursed for the Co-Sport handling fees, which total about a thousand dollars in my case.

Any More Tickets?

So, I wondered, will any more tickets be sold to people living in Japan. At the Tokyo2020 lotteries in 2019, about 4.45 million tickets were sold to residents of Japan for the Olympiad, while an additional 600,000 were sold overseas through ATRs, which is how I got my tickets.

When Tokyo 2020 was postponed, residents in Japan were given the opportunity to ask for refunds, and 18% of tickets were cancelled as a result. Thus, there are now 3.6 million seats for the Olympics reserved for those in Japan.

As I understand it, organizers estimated a couple of years ago that approximately 7.8 million tickets would be made available for the Tokyo Olympics, although that could be closer to 9 million.

Based on those numbers, there should be another 3 to 4 million tickets that need to be accounted for.  A chunk of that was likely targeted for sponsors, organizers, sports federations and other assorted affiliated support groups. But since now there is a mandate to limit the number of overseas visitors to people essential to the operations of the Games, many of those people will not be coming.

So what will happen to all those tickets? It’s not clear yet.

Under the current conditions of the pandemic in Japan, it is unlikely that spectators will be banned from the Olympic and Paralympic venues, but it is likely they will be limited. The organizers will probably want to avoid disappointing ticket holders in Japan as much as possible. Ideally, they honor all 3.6 million tickets already purchased in Japan, which is about 45% of the total number of tickets expected to be available.

Currently, Japan has a restriction of a maximum of 10,000 spectators for baseball games in the coming Nippon Professional Baseball season. Will organizers be willing to relax restrictions for the Olympics and allow upwards of 45% attendance?

If they don’t relax those restrictions, then the organizers will also have to cancel and refund a certain number of tickets, maybe millions of tickets if they need to get to 20 or 30% of venue capacity.

This is an educated guess, and not one I like to make, but it’s likely that new tickets will not be issued.

Anyone got a ticket?

Paralympian Mami Sato speaks during the Tokyo 2020 bid presentation of the 125th IOC Session – 2020 Olympics Host City Announcement on September 7, 2013 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

In commemoration of the 56th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Paralympics, here is an excerpt from my book “1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes.”

二〇二〇年に向かって

An Olympic legacy is commonly thought of as the tangible benefits of having hosted an Olympiad—the new sporting venues or transportation systems, the organizing know-how and the practical technology. But it is also the intangible benefits—the inspiration of an entire generation who see the very best athletes in the world strive to their utmost. And on occasion, citizens of the host nation get to see their own athletes and teams take their country on a thrilling ride to victory. These moments can jolt children and young adults, sparking them to dream, to believe that “anything is possible, even for me!”

 

This aspect of that first Tokyo Olympics carries great significance today as Japan gears up for its second hosting of the Games in 2020. Once again, the country is seeking to create a symbol of resilience, hope, and forward-looking energy as it faces a future encumbered by events of the recent past.

 

After the collapse of the financial bubble in the early nineties, the Japanese economy fell into protracted doldrums, a period which came to be known as the “Lost Decades.” Markets and corporate profits (with some notable exceptions) languished. Japan was superseded by China as the world’s second largest GDP. Overall, Japan’s presence on the world stage seemed to have dimmed.

 

In addition to economic and demographic issues (declining birthrate, rapid aging, the emptying out of rural areas), Japan has been beset by a series of natural disasters: torrential rains, floods, and mudslides that have claimed hundreds of lives and demolished whole communities in the western part of the country; the major earthquake in Kumamoto, Kyushu, in 2016; and most devastating of all, the earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan and triggered a nuclear disaster, on March 11, 2011. Recovery from that disaster, complicated by radioactive debris and contamination, is still far from complete.

 

Understanding the power of context, the Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee was wise to select a relatively unknown Paralympian named Mami Sato from the March 11 disaster area to kick off their presentation to the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013. Sato, a two-time Paralympian long jumper, thirty-one at the time, spent long hours of preparation on the speech she had to make in English, a task for which she had almost no background. But her honest and unaffected delivery of a very moving story created an emotional swell of support that helped propel Japan to the winning bid.

 

I was nineteen when my life changed. I was a runner. I was a swimmer. I was even a cheerleader. Then, just weeks after I first felt pains in my ankle, I lost my leg to cancer. Of course, it was hard. I was in despair. Until I returned to university and took up athletics.

For Sato, the simple idea in sports of having a goal and working to reach and surpass it became a passion, the loss of her leg serving as a catalyst to a sporting life as a long jumper. Sato competed at the Paralympics in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. “I felt privileged to have been touched by the power of sport,” she said. “And I was looking forward to London 2012.”

 

Then disaster struck.

 

The tsunami hit my hometown. For six days I did not know if my family were still alive. And, when I did find them, my personal happiness was nothing compared to the sadness of the nation.

 

Like so many other survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan, Mami Sato helped others—forwarding messages, talking to victims, delivering food, and even organizing sporting events to take children’s minds off the daily worries of the aftermath.

Only then did I see the true power of sport…to create new dreams and smiles. To give hope. To bring people together. 

 

(Go to the 5 minute 25 second mark of the video below to see Mami Sato’s moving speech.)

Mami Sato has spent her recent years passing on that power to others—among them a young woman named Saki Takakuwa from Saitama. When Saki was in sixth grade, she loved playing tennis and running in track. One day she felt pain in her left leg after practicing hurdles, a pain that would not go away. It turned out to be a tumor below her knee, and at first the doctor couldn’t tell if it was malignant or benign. But after enduring four surgeries, including amputation, chemotherapy, hair loss, and the constant reliance on others for assistance, Takakuwa was despondent, wondering if she would ever walk again.

 

Her mother, Yoko, was determined to help her daughter turn her mindset around. She received a book from a friend called Lucky Girl, by Mami Sato. The mother scanned the book, looking for similarities in experience and stories that might make her daughter feel hopeful for the future. Those stories worked.

 

It was inspiring to read such a positive story by someone who’d gone through something similar to me. Her book made me realize there were opportunities out there and that I didn’t necessarily have to give up on sport. At a real dark time in my life, it gave me encouragement, but that doesn’t mean I suddenly decided to become a Paralympian. At that point I wasn’t really thinking about my future at all. It was just about getting through each day.

 

Even better, a doctor gave mother and daughter a sense of hope they simply had not imagined.

 

Once [Saki] becomes accustomed to the prosthetic, she will be able to go to school again. She will be able to go to senior high school and university. She will also be able to find a job and get married.

 

Buoyed by Sato’s example and the doctor’s new prognosis, Saki discovered that with practice, she could get around on her prosthetic leg. She could indeed walk again. And then she learned something even more powerful. By focusing on her thigh muscles and using them to maintain balance, Saki found she could run again, run straight, run hard.

 

At that time, I did not know what my own limitations were. But I was just happy to be able to do the same thing as everyone else, so I tried various challenges. I gave it my all in everything I did. I want to continue running while never forgetting that feeling.

 

Inspired, Takakuwa went on to compete in both the 2012 London Paralympics and the 2016 Rio Paralympics. At the age of twenty-eight, 2020 in Tokyo should be in her sights, with hopes of inspiring others.

 

Speaking of her own devastated hometown area, Mami Sato told the IOC delegates in Buenos Aires that athletes and their expression of Olympic values, can inspire:

 

More than 200 athletes, Japanese and international, making almost 1,000 visits to the affected area are inspiring more than 50,000 children. What we have seen is the impact of the Olympic values as never before in Japan. And what the country has witnessed is that those precious values, excellence, friendship, and respect, can be so much more than just words.

 

The legacy of the Olympics is the children and young men and women bearing witness to feats of peak performance, honest humility, exhaustive effort, and a perseverance beyond belief. It is also the respect the athletes have for one another, an appreciation on the part of all concerned of cultural differences and strengths, and a chance for the host country to display resilience, competence, goodwill, and hospitality to the rest of the world. Tokyo took full advantage of this opportunity in 1964. By all indications, it appears determined to surpass that performance in 2020.

Superhero Movie

Superheroes often emerge from intense pain and suffering, according to their origin stories.

Jean-Baptiste Alaize was three years old when he witnessed the slaughter of his Tutsi mother at the hands of Hutus during the Burundi Civil War, and he himself fell to four machete blows that resulted in the loss of a leg.

Bebe Vio was eleven years old when she fell in a coma induced by a battle with meningitis, a condition akin to “imploding inside.” A budding fencing star and a ball of energy, the Italian pre-teen had to make the horrible decision to amputate both arms and legs to thwart the advance of the disease.

Tatyana McFadden was born in the Soviet Union with a congenital disorder which paralyzed her from the waist down at birth, in a country that did not officially recognize the existence of disabled people.

However, these three and many others profiled in a recently released Netflix documentary found redemption and achievement in sport. The film, Rising Phoenix, is an impassioned introduction to the Paralympic movement. Layering on top of the powerful theme of Channel 4’s marketing of the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics – We’re the Superhumans! – Rising Phoenix gives Para athletes the Hollywood superhero treatment.

The production values of Rising Phoenix can be described as lavish. Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole is shot dancing under water, rays of light piercing the dark waters. Alaize sits open and relaxed on a spacious couch in an ornate French Baroque setting. South African sprinter Ntandu Mahlangu is interviewed with an actual cheetah in repose at his own cheetah blades. And Vio is filmed lovingly in slow motion, strapped to a wheelchair, lunging and gyrating to angelic music.

And yet when it comes to recognizing the disabled, Rising Phoenix is the exception. Every superhero has a weakness. For Superman, it is kryptonite. For Para athletes, and people with disabilities, it is apathy.

Rising Phoenix is a tale of Two Paralympics, nearly the best of times and the worst of times for the paramount global event for athletes with disabilities. The 2012 London Paralympics were a triumph of the organizers, an event that packed the stadiums and arenas, energized a city, and inspired the world. The 2016 Rio Olympics, as we learn in the film, nearly ended the Paralympic movement.

Rising Rio

Seven weeks before the start of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, then president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. Andrew Parsons was given terrible news by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games – they did not have enough money to run the Paralympic Games.

“Fµ©≤ing hell,” said Sir Philip Craven, then president of the International Paralympic Committee. “There was no money.”

“They are not telling you, we can do that, or we can do that,” said Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC at that time. “They are telling you we cannot organize the games. I couldn’t at that moment see how we could fix it. And that was scary.”

And as potential Rio Paralympians began to understand that the rumors were true, they had that sinking, familiar feeling from childhood, their teenage years, and still today: unfairness, humiliation, helplessness. Said two-time T-44 men’s 100-meter sprint champion, Jonnie Peacock of Team GB, “you just feel like these people don’t view the Paralympics as anything.”

Parsons explained in exasperation how he could not give clear answers to the national Paralympic committees who worried whether the Games would happen or not. But he and the filmmakers were explicit in explaining who was to blame. Speaking over images of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee, including chairman Carlos Nuzman, who was subsequently arrested for corruption and bribery, Parsons said, “forget about these guys, the leadership, because they won’t help.”

Rising Phoenix goes on to tell the nail-biting story of how IPC leadership, Parsons, Craven and Gonzalez, convinced the Brazilian government and skeptical authorities to keep this dream alive not only for over 4,300 Para athletes, but also for 24 million persons of disability in Brazil.

The 2012 London Paralympics is held up as the gold standard for awakening the world to the incredible athletic abilities of Para athletes. But it is the 2016 Rio Paralympics that may have saved the movement. Said Craven, “We’d have really broken the cycle. Confidence wouldn’t have been there in the future. It would (have been) the extinguishing of that Paralympic flame.”

Changing the World

Instead, the flame burns brightly today. Rising Phoenix brings alive the power of the movement, and the dreams of these superheroes.

  • The incredible story of the movement’s founder, Ludwig Guttman
  • The reunification of mother and child as summer Paralympian, Tatyana McFadden wins cross-country silver in the Winter Paralympics in her country of birth, Russia.
  • The dramatic and stirring gold medal victory of ebullient Bebe Vio in wheelchair fencing, who carries you on her shoulders in waves of joy.

“No one stays the same after watching the movie,” said Parsons in a recent interview with 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan. “If ten people watch the movie, ten people will be changed. If ten million people watch the movie, ten million people will be changed. I want the entire world to watch this movie.”

So do I.

Note: All film poster images shared with permission of the IPC.

“I was supposed to be in Tokyo today, rehearsing my opening speech,” said Andrew Parsons wistfully.

It was a little after 8pm on Monday, August 24, 2020 Japan time. Parsons, the President of the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), was addressing members of 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan in a Zoom meeting. The event marked one year to go for the Tokyo2020 Paralympics.

The Paralympics would have kicked off in Japan on Tuesday, August 25, 2020 if not for the devastating and global impact of COVID-19 virus. It was March 24, 2020 when the fateful decision was made to postpone both the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year. “That decision was not taken lightly, but it was the right one,” said Parsons. “Had the games been tomorrow, there’s no chance they would have happened.”

Putting the Puzzle Back Together

March 24 brought devastating news to the organizers in Japan. Yasushi Yamawaki, IPC Governing Board Member at Large and Tokyo 2020 Vice President said they were more than surprised.

“When the decision was made to postpone the games, most of the staff and partners, were very much shocked. They had spent seven years putting together the biggest and most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And with a few pieces to go, they were told to start over again.”

There are dozens of major sponsors, over 180 National Paralympic Committees, dozens of international sports federations, and thousands of athletes who had questions. But for the IPC, a huge question that had to be answered was how to ensure funding for Tokyo2020 in 2021. As Craig Spence, IPC Chief Brand & Communications Officer, explained, it was critical to re-do the contracts with the broadcasters first.

“From an IPC point of view, we had to review 300 contracts in the space of two weeks. We have TV contracts with 165 broadcasters. Each contract needed to be reviewed. And each contract impacted the cash flow of the IPC for 2020 because we were due money this year, but the TV contract was then moved to next year.”

And Parsons reminded everybody that this incredibly complex and urgent work had to be done in the challenging environment of a pandemic. “We had to manage our cash flow,” said Parsons. “But we also needed to work with our staff all over the world, many of whom were living away from their families during the most demanding period ever for the IPC.”

Parsons is hopeful, but he is realistic. He said that everything that can be done, that can be controlled, will be. Planning will continue through the end of September. The IPC will focus on countermeasures to COVID-19 in the last quarter of 2020, and then will enter operational readiness in the first quarter of 2021. After that, important decisions will have to be made.

“We still have one year to go. We will follow the development of the pandemic. Unfortunately, none of us have a crystal ball. We have to work as if the Games are going ahead. This is the tricky part – how to work towards something you don’t know 100% is going ahead or not. But at the moment we are working full speed ahead preparing for the Games as if they are happening.”

The postponement resulted in a re-planning process that prioritized two things: the safety and health of the athletes and an approach to budgeting only what is necessary, a sustainability mindset that can be applied to future Paralympics, something that Parsons calls the Principles. “In these principles, the safety of athletes Is the number 1 priority for us,” said Parsons. “Everything that is not fundamental for the Games will be downscaled or cut.”

No Question of the Tokyo2020 Legacy

The Paralympics were postponed for a year. But Tokyo2020 is already establishing a legacy in Japan. Yamawaki explained that Tokyo is one of the most accessible cities in the world for the disabled, and that the media showcases the capabilities and personalities of the Para athletes almost on a daily basis.

Spence shared comparative data showing the impact of the run-up to the Games.

“In the build up to London 2012 with 18 months to go, less than 1% of the British population could name a Paralympian, and everyone sees London as the benchmark. In Tokyo last year, 45% of the Japanese population could recognize Shingo Kunieda, the wheelchair tennis player. So that shows the real difference in interest. In terms of accessible transport, I think when Tokyo won the right to stage the Games, around 75% of the city’s metro stations were accessible. By the time the Games happen next year, that’s going to be at 99%. That would never have happened had it not been for the Paralympics coming to Tokyo. The legacies are going to be tremendous.” 

Yamawaki oversees the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center, which is driving a groundbreaking education program in Japan’s school system. The IPC’s “I’mPossible” program – a toolkit of resources designed to engage 6-12 year old students about the Paralympic movement – is being pioneered in Japan with great success. Yamawaki said that this program has been delivered to 36,000 primary and secondary schools across Japan.

Children can learn from this unique learning opportunity,” said Yamawaki. “They will become future leaders in creating an inclusive society in this country after the Paralympics are over. It’s going to be one of the biggest legacies. Usually the parents teach the children, but in the I’mPossible program, kids teach the parents. This will increase parents’ awareness of the Paralympic Games and Paralympic sports. That’s the biggest impact we’re seeing.”

What You Can Do

Here are a few suggestions from IPC leaders on what we all can do to support the Paralympics broadly, and people with disabilities specifically.

Employ Persons with Disabilities: If your company does not employ persons with disabilities, it should. If your office is not set up to deal with people in wheelchairs, put in ramps. If you have a restaurant or a canteen, make your menus available in braille, or put your information on the internet so that people with disabilities can more easily access the information.

See the Opportunity: As Spence explained, before he joined the IPC, he didn’t realize people with disabilities are such great problem solvers.

“People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They don’t tend to moan. They don’t just sit around thinking I can’t get around this. They always find innovative ways to get around and beat the challenge. They can bring a whole new creativity and new outlook to your business.”

Go See the Games: Seeing the Para athletes in action will change your attitude for life. Get as many people around you to see the Games.

“There’s very few people in the world who can run 100 meters in under 10.5 seconds,” said Spence. “Yet we have athletes with prosthetic legs and running blades who can do it in 10.4 seconds. It really does challenge perceptions towards disability.”

See my review for Rising Phoenix.
Rising Phoenix: The Stirring Netflix Documentary on the Paralympic Movement that Seeks to Change the World