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Paralympian determined to clean up sports' tarnished image in Rio

Wheelchair basketball player Reo Fujimoto, who is serving as the Japanese delegation captain at the Rio Paralympics, is seen during practice at the Carioca Arena in Rio de Janeiro, on Sept. 5, 2016. (Mainichi)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Wheelchair basketball player Reo Fujimoto, who is competing in the Rio Paralympics as the captain of the Japanese delegation, is determined not only to lead his fellow Japanese Paralympians in the quadrennial event but also to dispel the negative image attached to sports because of a series of scandals involving international organizations.

Born and raised in the Shizuoka Prefecture city of Shimada, Fujimoto was hit by a dump truck when he was a third-grader, and had his right leg amputated from the knee down. He joined a local basketball team in his junior high school years at the recommendation of his father, a former basketball player who had competed in a National Sports Festival, and played with able-bodied people.

Fujimoto entered Tohoku Fukushi University in Miyagi Prefecture in 2002 and joined local wheelchair basketball powerhouse Miyagi Max. In the following year, he became the top scorer at the Japanese national championship and was picked as a Japanese team member for the first time at the 2004 Athens Paralympics.

The 32-year-old Paralympian has since led Japan's wheelchair basketball, being crowned the top scorer in the Japan championships for 11 years in a row and representing Japan's national team at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London games. To improve his skills, Fujimoto has played with a team in Hamburg, Germany, since 2014 and takes part in a German league during winter.

Hamburg made a bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, but its citizens said "no" to hosting the Games in a close vote in a referendum at the end of November 2015.

Fujimoto, who took part in events as a member of the local team to call for support in the Olympic and Paralympic bid, recalled, "I felt that the city had the momentum and didn't think the 'no' votes would win." He learned about the referendum result on his way back to Hamburg after a domestic match and wondered why the bid was rejected.

The Hamburg bidding committee said the failure to win locals' support was partly attributable to a suspected corruption case involving Germany's bid to host the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Meanwhile in Japan, suspicion surfaced this year in regard to its bid to host the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Furthermore, a gambling scandal involving male badminton national team players has rocked the badminton world.

"I feel like people have this negative image about sports," Fujimoto says, as he reflects on the series of scandals involving parties related to sports.

It was his participation in sports that allowed him to spread his wings in the world even with a disability. And because of that, Fujimoto can say that he has gained self-confidence. In his fourth Paralympic Games, Fujimoto is determined to clean up the reputation of sports by doing his best.

The Japanese wheelchair basketball team has set a goal of finishing in a record-setting sixth place or higher at the Rio Paralympics. Fujimoto, however, aims even higher.

"My personal goal is always winning a medal," a determined Fujimoto commented.

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