Tokyo’s first Paralympic Games in 1964 helped transform society’s perspective on people with disabilities in Japan and fueled a paradigm shift from compassion to empowerment, according to two para-athletes who participated in Asia’s first ever Summer Games.
Hideo Kondo, who competed in archery and wheelchair basketball among other sports in 1964, said the event was a life-changing experience. He was exposed to the gap between what it meant to be a Japanese para-athlete at the time and how foreign athletes saw themselves and were viewed by others.
The accompanying photo shows Hideo Kondo (R), who represented Japan at the 1964 Paralympics, in conversation with Italian competitors in the 1964 athletes’ village. (Kyodo)
The 86-year-old Japanese man, who sustained a spinal cord injury at work when he was 16, was invited to the Games while rehabilitating at a facility at the Beppu Thermal Spa in Oita Prefecture.
At the time, Kondo said that disabled people were treated as objects of pity in Japan. This was in stark contrast to overseas competitors whose athletic achievements were emphasized and who were not viewed as helpless and dependent.
Hideo Kondo, who competed in six competitions at the 1964 Paralympics, including archery and wheelchair basketball, is pictured in Aki City, Kochi Prefecture, on June 21, 2021. (Kyodo)
“The sporting role models have changed the societal attitude towards disability,” said Kondo.
As a Paralympian, Kondo benefited from an athletes’ village that can accommodate people with wheelchairs or other special equipment. He saw barrier-free living as a way to a self-determined life for people with disabilities.
“Sharing this experience is my mission,” he thought.
After the Paralympics in Tokyo, Kondo moved from the private sector to a position in local government, where he spent over 40 years providing services and support for people with disabilities, as well as building barrier-free infrastructure.
Katsumi Suzaki competed in the 1964 Paralympics in six disciplines in four sports, including track and field and swimming. The 79-year-old calls the games “the starting point of my life”.
Katsumi Suzaki (C) competes in a men’s wheelchair basketball event during the last Tokyo Paralympic Games in November 1964. (Courtesy photo of Japan Sun Industries) (Kyodo)
Suzaki said he lost hope for a future when he injured his spinal cord in a motorcycle accident at the age of 20, at a time when people with disabilities in Japan were often kept from paid work.
But when he took part in the Games and saw Paralympians all over the world leading “normal” lives, he was motivated to look for work.
He got a job in a prosthesis factory and made a conscious effort to dispel misconceptions that disabled people are not as productive as non-disabled workers and to dispel myths about disabled workers.
During difficult times, the urge to join the group of elite para-athletes with successful careers drove him to keep going so that he could remain engaged until the age of 72.
Katsumi Suzaki participates in a men’s table tennis event during the previous Tokyo Paralympics in November 1964. (Courtesy photo of Japan Sun Industries) (Kyodo)
“The flower of my life blossomed at the Paralympics,” said Suzaki.
The Paralympic movement has seen many changes since Tokyo last hosted the Paralympics in 1964.
Disability rights, accessibility and inclusion are at the center of many discussions today in the context of sports.
The Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee has formulated accessibility guidelines for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The guidelines apply to ramps, stairs, floor areas, receptions, entrances and exits, doors, elevators and escalators.
The universal design and accessibility elements are possibly the most tangible way that the spectator-free games have an impact. Kondo and Suzaki believe that the impact and legacy of the Paralympics extends well beyond the sports arena and could change Japan forever.
“I hope these Paralympics will lead to improvements in accessibility, not just to make society better for people with disabilities, but better for all people,” said Kondo.
Suzaki wants “people with disabilities to be fully integrated into society” and he sets an example by being part of a bocce team of disabled and non-disabled players.
The file photo shows Katsumi Suzaki speaking about the first time the Tokyo 1964 Paralympics were held during an interview at Japan Sun Industries (Taiyo-no-Ie) in Beppu City, Oita Prefecture in March 2020. (Kyodo)