Japan seeks youth movement to power future Paralympic teams

As the Beijing Winter Games come to a close on Sunday, Japan will turn its attention to finding young athletes with disabilities who have the potential to become future Paralympic medalists.

But Japan is grappling with challenges in the talent identification process as it seeks to help young athletes with disabilities find a path to sport and then to the Paralympic podium.

Slovakia’s Alexandra Rexova competes in the visually impaired women’s super-G at the Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing on March 6, 2022, at the National Alpine Skiing Center in the Yanqing competition area. (Kyodo)

The lack of accessibility of sports facilities and infrastructure limits the participation of people with disabilities in sports, making it difficult for athletes to find a safe and supportive environment to start their sports careers at an early age.

While it is difficult to find disability-friendly gyms and pools in Japan, it can be even more difficult to find snow and ice sports programs for people with various disabilities and mobility issues that offer adapted equipment, qualified instructions and competitions.

Although sport can be an important way for people with disabilities to gain a foothold in their community, it requires a high level of commitment from all parties involved to ensure ultimate success.

“It is very difficult to identify and develop athletic talent. Athletes and their parents must be fully engaged,” said Kuniko Obinata, representative of the Japan Para Ski Federation.

The Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo brought together 4,400 athletes who competed in 537 medal-winning events, compared to 564 athletes and 78 medal-winning events at the Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing.

The youngest of the three Japanese to win a medal in Beijing was 21-year-old cross-country skier Taiki Kawayoke. The others went to Momoka Muraoka, 25, and Taiki Morii, 41, both alpine sit-skiers.

Austria’s Johannes Aigner competes in the visually impaired men’s downhill event at the Beijing Paralympic Winter Games on March 5, 2022 at the National Alpine Skiing Center in the Yanqing competition area. (Kyodo)

Countries that dedicate more resources to supporting sports for the disabled reap the benefits.

Alpine skiers Alexandra Rexova of Slovakia, who won gold in the women’s super-G for the visually impaired, and Johannes Aigner of Austria, who won five medals in the visually impaired category, including two gold, are all two 16 year olds.

China, Germany and Great Britain also had gold medalists under the age of 20.

Craig Spence, head of brand and communications for the International Paralympic Committee, told the IPC press conference on Thursday that young athletes stole the show at the Paralympic Games in Beijing and Tokyo.

“Here, and it was the same in Tokyo, promising young athletes dominate the podium. It’s great for the Paralympic Games and the Paralympic movement,” he said.

Spence said the Paralympic Games have received better television coverage over the past two decades, inspiring a new generation of para-athletes to embark on new adventures. By the time of the 2030 Games, for which Sapporo has a strong chance of winning the tender, interest will have increased further.

“Great credit goes to our National Paralympic Committees and International Federations for developing such talents,” Spence said.

The start of a new Paralympic cycle offers a new chance for individuals and nations to look to the future and identify talent. Most countries are trying to develop systems that identify gifted athletes and promote their development.

After the unprecedented postponement of the Games in Tokyo and the rapid turnaround in Beijing, the Olympic and Paralympic circus will resume its activities every two years, starting with Paris in the summer of 2024. Milan-Cortina in Italy will host the Games in winter of 2026.

Looking forward to a possible moment when it will once again be a Paralympic host, Japan needs to set more ambitious plans to strengthen the country’s winter sports talent pool and secure the future of Paralympic sports at home.

Japan’s Momoka Muraoka poses with the Beijing Paralympic Games mascot on March 11, 2022 after winning the women’s seated giant slalom for her third alpine skiing gold of the Games. (Kyodo)