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Efforts underway to offer disabled athletes use of more gyms

Shun Fujita, right, is seen practicing with an able-bodied opponent at the Kodokan dojo hall in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward, on July 25, 2016. (Mainichi)

Companies and sports organizations for able-bodied athletes are making efforts to provide space for athletes with disabilities to practice as even national team players participating in the Paralympics are finding it difficult to secure training places in Japan.

In late January this year, the sitting volleyball Japanese national team held a training camp at the Musashino Sports Complex general gymnasium in the Tokyo suburban city of Musashino. During a lunch break, team manager Yoshihisa Mano invited some 20 Musashino residents to the arena and gave a lecture on the basic moves and skills required in the sport.

Sitting volleyball was invented for those with disabilities in the lower part of their bodies. The January training camp was the first such event in the city of Musashino for the national team, and it took place in cooperation with the municipal government that supports the Paralympic sport.

"Since we're occupying the gym over the weekend, I wanted to somehow win local residents' understanding," Mano commented about the lecture.

When it comes to sports played by disabled athletes, it is tough for national teams to find a place to practice, let alone amateur club teams.

Furthermore, many facilities run by local bodies place priority on local residents regarding usage fees and other services, putting disabled athletes at a disadvantage since it is not easy for teams of athletes with disabilities to find several players from the same municipality because the number of people engaged in sports for the disabled is small. Such being the case, disabled athletes mainly use sports facilities managed by prefectural governments, which sometimes requires long-distance trips.

Some sports organizations and companies, meanwhile, offer the disabled athletes their facilities for practice.

The Kodokan Judo Institute, the birthplace of modern judo, has offered its dojo hall in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward to the Japan blind judo association for the past 30 years as the venue for major blind judo tournaments. The association has organized full-fledged training camps for the national team since the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. Kodokan also lets amateur judoka with disabilities use its facilities.

Motonari Sameshima, Kodokan's dojo training head, says one's disabilities do not matter "as long as they can practice and recognize the values of judo, which is about respecting one's opponent."

Shun Fujita, 46, of Tokyo's Edogawa Ward regularly visits Kodokan to practice judo. He has had hearing disabilities since birth and started judo nine years ago when his eye sight began deteriorating. Four years ago, Fujita earned a black belt for his first dan rank.

"I was so happy the day I got my black belt that I slept with it by my pillow," Fujita recalls.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi Electric Corp. started lending its gymnasium in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, since April to wheelchair basketball teams based in the Kanto region twice a month as a part of the company's corporate social responsibility program. It even renovated bathrooms and the entrance at the gym with a universal design.

Megumi Harada, 34, a wheelchair basketball player belonging to a local team based in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Atsugi, used Mitsubishi Electric's gym on April 2, the first day it was opened to disabled athletes.

"There are no requirements of residency (in the city) to use the gym. It is a big help as some sports facilities reject our requests to use their spaces, saying that we pose a danger to others at their facilities," Harada says.

The wheelchair basketball national team has used facilities owned by companies that signed sponsorship contracts with the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Federation (JWBF) in May last year. JWBF Chairman Toshihiko Tamagawa says he hopes that more companies will allow disabled athletes to use their gyms.

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