There shall be a legacy

Some words about the Paralympics

Sunday, September 6, 2020, 20:00 - 23:00 (JST), Japan National Stadium, Tōkyō, Japan. Closing Ceremony, the XVI Summer Paralympic Games. Having welcomed 378 athletes from 21 countries who competed in 9 sports in 1964, Tōkyō should at this moment be the first city that hosted the Summer Paralympic Games twice. 

Founded in 1948 by German neuro-scientist Sir Ludwig Guttmann at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Great Britain, the Paralympic Movement originally focused on the rehabilitation of injured World War II veterans. The day of the Opening Ceremony of the London 1948 Olympic Games, he organised the first competition for wheelchair athletes which he named the Stoke Mandeville Games. Though it was only in 1960 that the first official Paralympic Games were held in Rome, Italy. Since then, the Games have taken place every four years and are today recognised as the world’s third-largest sporting event. Alike the Olympics, the Paralympics have progressively been growing in size. For 2020, Tōkyō was expecting around 4,350 Paralympic athletes from over 165 countries; 22 sports should have been carried out at 21 venues.

The Paralympic Games are not only a sporting event but also nowadays seen as an important opportunity to help integrate people with impairments into society. In the run-up to the 2020 Games, the Tōkyō Organising Committee had issued its official, some 140 pages-long Accessibility Guidelines and a 46 pages-long Handbook to Accessibility Support. I must admit that although I received these documents in English, I still haven’t made my way through the entire reading. Nevertheless, its brief review quickly clarified that what I may have considered hazardous estimations or approximative indications, actually all had been meticulously thought-out. Thus, the documents cover topics such as Pathways and Circulation Areas, Surfaces, Paving and Finishes, Entrances and Exits and provide recommendations in regard of physical and mental assistance, depending on individuals’ conditions. 

Notably since the implementation of the Law for Promoting Easily Accessible Public Transportation Infrastructure for the Elderly and Disabled Persons (Transportation Barrier-Free Law) in 2000, a large number of Tōkyō’s train stations have been transformed. In 2003, 67,2% were wheelchair accessible, which signifies 312 out of the by then 464 existing stations. In 2016, the number was increased to 95,8%, meaning 458 out of 479 stations. At around the same period of time, other world cities such as Paris (3% !), New York (about 10%) or London (18%), showed remarkably lower rates. However, Tōkyō’s ambition was to reach a 100% mark until summer 2020. Schools, apartment buildings, stores, hotels and various facilities were also refurbished in view of the Games. In the Japanese capital, many guest rooms are small and narrow, and with the expected arrival of not only Paralympic athletes, supposed to be housed at the Athletes Village, but also an important number of visitors with impairments, organisers where aware of a possible shortage of adapted accommodations. 

I am not much of an expert, and I may preferably leave the details to some esteemed research acquaintances who have more knowledge about the Paralympics than me. Though from my experience, I can affirm that Tōkyō has not missed any chance to highlight its willingness to be prepared. At each venue I was shown around, the barrier-free standards were proudly presented, the taxis from the first mobility partner of the Olympic and Paralympic Movement Toyota were adapted in order to easily be accessible for people in wheelchairs and in any official speech Paralympics came obstinately together with Olympics, no matter how much it would extend its length.  

Integration of impairment – like any peculiarity which doesn’t correspond to the general norm – may related to the Japanese society though rather sound paradoxical. Well-known are the humoristic illustrations of non-fitting (oversized) foreigners, who hit their heads at entrance gates, who stick out of the crowd or whose feet overpass the mattress in guest rooms; who struggle to find any clothing or even sometimes seem too scary to be welcomed at restaurants. Difficult to imagine a change of people’s mindset and acceptance of any characteristic considered being anomalous. In world metropolises, individuals with impairments are generally a minority, however the nearly-absence in Tōkyō is striking. 

The years preceding the foreseen 2020 Games, TV shows and documentaries about the Olympics as well as the Paralympics started to gradually spread. Animation x Paralympic: Who Is Your Hero ? was launched on NHK in September 2018, training sessions of athletes and their visits at schools were filmed and diffused, Rising Phoenix was published on Netflix in summer 2020 and even the official song Tōkyō Gorin Ondo 2020 includes dance instructions for persons in wheelchairs. In order to mark the 200 days to go until the Tōkyō 2020 Paralympic Games, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) had in autumn 2019 announced the opening of its first Paralympic Museum in the Japanese capital. Located at Coredo Muromachi Terrace in Nihombashi, and in cooperation with Mitsui Fudosan, Tōkyō aimed to operate this museum from August 25, 2020 to late September 2020. The idea of it was to give a glance of the history and growth of the Paralympic Movement and their role in improving social inclusion. With a shrinking and aging society, Japan is particularly conscious about the need to forge an easily accessible environment and hopes through the aid of the Paralympic Games to leave a tangible and intangible long-lasting legacy. 

When some weeks ago, I saw a woman with a guide dog at a subway station, I got reminded that although I have seen many barrier-free facilities and received explanation about the anticipation of various needs, I besides very few people in wheelchairs, most of whom I got to know in the context of the Paralympic Games, can hardly remember having met a person with any impairments in Tōkyō.

Tōkyō 2020 Accessibility Guidelines, Sketch of Figure 2: Protruding items on the pathway (example)  © Louise Claire Wagner

Using Format