Tokyo, I miss you

As I watch the Paralympics on multiple devices simultaneously from home, I lament not being in Tokyo myself. This games would have marked 20 years since I first experienced a Summer Paralympic Games, and nearly 40 years since I visited Tokyo.

At the Sydney 2000 games, I attended my first wheelchair rugby game. I recall being in The Dome hearing the ear-bleeding noise of the chairs crashing into each other as players attacked to get over the try line while the opposition blocked. Looking back at old photos the technology of the chairs has changed so much that I’m surprised these early athletes survived those collisions!

As a volunteer at a games – this would have been my third games following Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Paralympics and Rio2016 Olympics – I have been in the position to experience these games from a unique perspective. Behind the scenes so much happens to ensure the athletes have the best possible opportunity to excel and its a privilege to be part of it.

This year my role was to support one of the Pacific Island teams, for some it would have been their first games. For me too, it would have been the first time I would have worked directly with a team, rather than assisting with a sport. Unfortunately the pandemic has wrecked havoc with many of the teams’ unable to attend the games due to border closures and no flights. Hopefully Paris in 3 years time will bring this opportunity to these athletes and create a legacy for Para sport in their respective countries.

Thinking about legacy of Para sport, I have been exchanging emails with the IPC Vice President, a Kiwi who I know and respect highly. We’ve been talking about the use of the word impairment versus disability in relation to my research and whether there is a right or wrong way to describe athletes in sport. It’s made me start thinking more about a few things, always good to be challenged, thanks Duane.

The social model of disability describes disability as being imposed by society on an individual rather than the impairment itself being the disability. Disability comes from attitudes and behaviours of others, inaccessible facilities and amenities and a lack of considered support for individuals who do not meet the “norm” leading them to be unable (or disabled) to fully participate in society.

In my research, I am looking at young people with physical impairments who are actively engaged and are participating in sport, so the question I am now pondering is, are they disabled? If I stick with the social model, I could argue that in the context of sport they are not disabled, rather they are enabled. This is an interesting perspective I will now need to now consider more, especially how these young people themselves describe their experiences.

My interest is also piqued in how the label disability is attached to individuals. I’ve thought about this briefly and realise we all have multiple identities – parent, child, sibling, partner, friend, boss, colleague, team mate – all many different but most contextual. So now I’m thinking why are individuals labelled disabled as their singular and often only identity? Don’t all people have different relationships in different contexts?

So for the young people in my research who are actively participating in sport, can they be enabled in sport while being disabled in other spheres of their lives? Can I call them young people with impairments rather than disabled if the context is appropriate? Does this paradox mean the language, discourse and narrative around disability needs to become more flexible and contextual? Again, interesting questions which will require further contemplation and consideration.

Which leads me back to Tokyo. Watching these athletes from all over the world perform at the Paralympic Games under the banner of Para sport and Para athletes – being parallel to Olympic and Olympians – signals to me a change is happening. They are athletes first and foremost, they are competing at the highest level of their sport, and many are performing beyond perhaps even their expectations, as seem by the multitude of world records broken in the pool, at the velodrome and on the track. Wow, what a games it has been.

I do wish I was there, but I fully understand the decision made to limit the number of internationals attending the games. For now though, I will continue to watch as much as I can on all my devices. To all the athletes, coaches and officials on the field of play and everyone involved in all the hardwork behind the scenes which have made these games so successful, I say to you Hontoni arigato gozaimasu – Thank you so much. You are all, in your own way helping breakdown the barriers and making this world a better place for all to live.

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