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Tokyo Paralympic Committee and athletes work to fill stadiums in 2020

Parathletes Koyo Iwabuchi, left, and Sae Shigemoto are seen at an event to encourage people to support the Paralympics by attending the games, in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, on Aug. 13, 2019. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO -- The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games has set a target for the Paralympic events to be "full stadium" sellout events.

Because the level of public awareness regarding the global competition is low compared to the Olympic Games, athletes are taking part in initiatives to raise awareness about the event. Tactics being formulated also include keeping ticket prices low for the young, elderly and those with disabilities to make it easier for them to see the Paralympics.

This spring, a number of media organizations including the Mainichi Newspapers received a heartfelt letter. It read, "A recent public survey of residents in the Tokyo area revealed that only 0.8% of people, the very lowest result, had seen Paralympic rowing. It is an incredibly low level of awareness.

"For the athletes who will compete at the Tokyo Paralympic Games it is essential that people's perception of the event is improved. Please consider coming to do a piece on us."

The letter was from Ryohei Ariyasu, 32, a Paralympic rower with sight impairment who could be selected to represent Japan at the 2020 tournament. His eyesight began to deteriorate from the age of 15, when he developed macular retinal dystrophy. In 2016, he started taking part in rowing events for parathletes.

He will compete for a medal in the coxed four (mixed) event, which comprises a team of five athletes -- two male and female visually or orthopedically impaired rowers and a cox who can be physically unimpaired.

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games will feature 22 sports, but a September 2017 awareness survey carried out by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government on 3,000 men and women aged 18 and over living in the capital (which received a 63.6% response rate) revealed some harsh discrepancies.

In response to a question asking whether respondents had ever watched a sport being played by athletes with impairments, the top answer was wheelchair tennis player Shingo Kunieda, who is known for his activism. Some 55% had seen him in action. Rowing and sailing were included together despite sailing not being included in the 2020 program. They managed an awareness level close to zero, at just 0.8%.

Nationally there are extremely few rowing athletes, numbering only about 100. Reportedly Ariyasu came up with the idea to send out a request for coverage from media organizations, saying that to start achieving widespread awareness of Paralympic sports they would need to have someone help get the word out.

He then thought up the contents of his letter and got an associate to write his request onto three sheets of paper.

On his blog, Ariyasu introduces sports, and has also taken part in schemes including visiting places to carry out lessons. A year later, the same awareness survey showed that while rowing and sailing hadn't moved from its position at the bottom of the list, it had achieved a result almost twice as good as last time with 1.5% awareness levels.

Looking back on the result, Ariyasu said, "I could feel in my bones then that we were gaining momentum in society."

The number of athletes on his team has increased by five people in half a year to reach around 20 members. There's a greater competitiveness among them now, too. Thanks to their activities to introduce the sport at events and dispatch lessons, they even hear kids saying they know about it.

"To win on the world stage, we can't reduce the amount of time we spend training and honing our skills. It makes it difficult to keep spreading the word out," Ariyasu admitted while giving off a sense of fulfillment.

At present he is competing at the 2019 Rowing Championships in Linz Ottensheim, Austria, held between Aug. 25 and Sept. 1, as part of efforts to be selected for the Japan Paralympic rowing team.

Against the background of the organizing committee's efforts to make the 2020 games a sellout event, he intends to show the public his greatest performance. With that blueprint for the future, his efforts as a parathlete continue.

At an event to announce the detailed schedule for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games ticket lottery, table tennis player Koyo Iwabuchi, 24, and track and field athlete Sae Shigemoto, 24, raised their fists and voices to call for people to support the Paralympics at its venues by making full attendance a reality.

For the Olympics, the organizing committee is selling tickets for between 2,500 yen and 130,000 yen. But Paralympics tickets are lower, costing between 900 yen and 7,000 yen.

There are plans to make tickets priced as low as 500 yen available to those including people with impairments, the elderly and children aged 12 and under. When lottery applications opened on the official website on Aug. 22, there were many posts on social media commenting on how cheap Paralympic tickets are.

Expectations are also high for a school affiliate ticket scheme, in which over 1 million seats have been prepared for elementary, junior high and high school students across Japan who wish to see the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The breakdown of the ticket allocation has yet to be announced, but an individual connected to the organizing committee gave a hint of what to expect, saying, "There will probably be many more tickets for the Paralympics."

But in reality, the only Paralympics so far to have sold out tickets was in London in 2012, with sales of some 2.7 million. Of the 2.5 million tickets made available at the games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, some 350,000 were not snapped up. Although the number that will go on sale for Tokyo 2020 has yet to be announced, it's expected to come to 2.3 million tickets.

Just 16.2% of respondents to a 2018 survey carried out by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said they wanted to directly watch Paralympic events at their venues, down from 18.9% the year before.

Concerning the results, a representative at the Tokyo government said, "We haven't completely analyzed why, but we want to keep increasing the number of opportunities for people to get into contact with Paralympic sports through viewing meet-ups and events to experience the sports." It has increased the number of public viewings of para sports to 17 this fiscal year, up from 10 in the previous one.

An online newsletter limited to members of Team Beyond Tokyo, the metropolitan government's para sports promotion initiative, reached over 1.27 million subscribers. One organizer said, "The response from businesses and groups has been good. To try and ensure the passion for para sports doesn't cool off after the games, initiatives from across society, not just the government, will be essential."

When Paralympic ticket lottery applications were opened on Aug. 22, its official site registered some 110,000 attempts to access the site, in contrast to the first day of the Olympic ticket lottery, in which its site received around 1.3 million.

While the difference in interest is undeniable, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, Andrew Parsons, has said that he wants more young people to see the events, in order to change society and the way that people with impairments are perceived.

It's hoped that the campaign to fill stadiums at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games will lead to a revolution in society's attitudes.

(Japanese original by Tatsuya Haga, Sports News Department)

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