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Paralympic athletes taking on role as models for society as support increases

Satoru Miyazaki, left, is seen at a send-off gathering organized by Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance Co., with a flag bearing messages of encouragement that was presented to him, in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Aug. 1, 2016. (Mainichi)

In February this year, intellectually disabled swimmer Satoru Miyazaki joined visually impaired swimmer Chikako Ono in a ceremony to enter Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance Co.

    "I'll work hard to fulfill my dream of racing in the Paralympics," Miyazaki said. Stumbling over his words, he pulled a note from his pocket.

    The following month, the two swimmers faced qualifying trials for the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Executives from a sporting organization for the disabled were present at the entrance ceremony, and while they said people shouldn't pressure the athletes, the swimmers were repeatedly called on to "go to Rio and put in a good performance."

    Japanese swimmer Junichi Kawai, who won 21 Paralympic medals and is now president of the Japanese Para-Swimming Federation, told the swimmers after the ceremony, "If you're overcome by that amount of pressure, then you won't be able to compete on the world stage."

    The two swimmers laughed that they had felt some pressure. Nevertheless, they earned tickets to Rio in the qualifying trials.

    After Tokyo was picked in September 2013 to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, sports for the disabled received a boost in Japan. From that year, the Japanese Olympic Committee extended the Athnavi program, which helps athletes find jobs, to cover Paralympic athletes as well. In 2014, four disabled athletes entered companies under the program. In July 2016, the figure for the year had already reached nine, Miyazaki and Ono among them.

    Paralympic athletes have also seen an increase in financial support. In fiscal 2016, government subsidies to sporting bodies provided through the Japan Sport Council topped 1.42 billion yen -- leaping about 35 percent from the previous fiscal year. And from this fiscal year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government launched a system covering a portion of equipment and tour expenses for recognized athletes.

    Naturally, just like with subsidies for other athletes, sports associations for the disabled must remain transparent about and accountable for public funding they receive.

    Reflecting on the evolving situation, Kawai commented, "Regardless of whether they have disabilities or not, athletes must remain clean and be role models for society." An athlete's medal is his or her own, and to provide support for that with public funds, when one thinks it through, should seem odd, Kawai says.

    So what do those supporting the athletes expect?

    "They believe that the things the athletes achieve during competition, starting with medals, will be of use to society in some form or other. So I want athletes to put their own experiences and so on to use, and give something back to society," Kawai says.

    Kawai, the first Japanese athlete to be inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame, urges those following his footsteps as Paralympic competitors to foster self-awareness as public figures.

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