TOKYO -- To what extent can disabled and nondisabled athletes compete against each other? This April, a female wheelchair athlete put this question to the test and broke barriers by competing at the preliminary rounds of a Tokyo tennis tournament for junior high schoolers. But despite her showing, there were some barriers she could not bring down.
In the world of sports, playing on the same stage with or without disabilities is also called inclusive competition. Although not an official sport, tennis has a style of play called "New Mix," in which wheelchair players make doubles pairs with nondisabled players. The practice is spreading, with professionals Shingo Kunieda and Kei Nishikori doubling up for an exhibition match.
Debates about fairness, such as differentiations between equipment including wheelchairs and prosthetics, make it difficult to play the variation in official games.
Markus Rehm of Germany has a prosthetic leg below his right knee. He holds the para-athletics long jump world record of 8.62 meters, which is top class compared to Olympians. He aims to appear at the Olympics, but has not been accepted because he "cannot prove prosthetic legs are not an advantage."
But in April wheelchair athlete Yuma Takamuro, 14, was accepted for the preliminary round of the Tokyo Junior High School Physical Culture Association's tennis tournament. Takamuro is a promising young player, and has been chosen by the Japan Wheelchair Tennis Association as its designated next-generation player for improved development.
She took up tennis aged 6. Since the third grade of elementary school, Takamuro has played wheelchair tennis; she began at that time to use a wheelchair due to a hereditary bone disease.
After graduating from an elementary school for special needs students, she enrolled at Shukutoku Sugamo Junior High School and joined its tennis club open to all students. At the same time, her main focus remained playing wheelchair tennis tournaments held outside of school.
She resolved to participate in the metropolitan tournament's preliminary round around last spring, when she overheard students at the tennis club talking about her, and saying things like she "wasn't that strong anyway."
This year, her third as a junior high schooler, she appealed directly to the club's supervisor to let her play in the tournament. They then contacted the meet's office, and she was allowed to participate. According to involved parties, it was the first time a wheelchair tennis player had appeared in the preliminary rounds.
The match held April 18 followed official rules that wheelchair players must return the ball in two bounces and unimpaired players in one. Even so, wheelchair players are generally considered at a disadvantage because they cannot reach high balls or stand on their feet. To compete on equal terms, Takamuro tried as much as possible to return the ball in one bounce.
She lost in the third round after winning her first and second, but looked cheerful. "I made a lot of errors in the end, but I'm glad I could participate. I'll be happy if they realize I can compete on equal terms," Takamuro said.
Takehiko Yukishita, a part-time lecturer at Juntendo University and an expert on people with impairments' participation in sports, said, "This will help break down stereotypes that 'sports' and 'sports for disabled people' are separate. It's great that a wheelchair tennis player was allowed to participate in an official tournament this time."
Takamuro's challenge broke one barrier, but there were some she could not.
Her appearance in the tournament was conditional. Even if she had won all her preliminary rounds, she would not have been allowed to go to the main tournament.
According to tournament organizers the Tokyo Junior High School Physical Culture Association, this was because "it is a tournament leading to Kanto region and national events, and when discussions on fairness arise it becomes difficult to judge."
There were also barriers at the venues. The first day's location for the preliminary rounds allowed wheelchairs on tennis courts, but the second day's private school didn't until the last minute because its artificial grass "could be damaged by wheelchairs."
Still, Takamuro feels a sense of achievement, saying, "I learned that if I am proactive and don't assume I can't do something, people around me will sometimes grant my requests. I want any children who might be in the same situation as me to have confidence in themselves."
For now, Takamuro plans to focus on wheelchair tennis, with her sights set on the 2024 Paris Paralympics.
(Japanese original by Tomoko Igarashi, Tokyo City News Department)