The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

In 1939, a young Jewish doctor named Ludwig Guttmann fled Nazi Germany for England; but the horrors of war followed him. British servicemen began streaming into his hospital ward seeking treatment for severe spinal cord injuries, at the time thought to carry a sentence of life in a hospital bed. But Guttmann wanted more for his patients, so he instituted rehabilitation programs. In a stroke of creative genius that would become his legacy, he brought them onto the hospital grounds for an archery competition against patients from a nearby clinic. The contest took place on the same day as the opening ceremonies of the 1948 London Olympic Games.

It was a small event—just 16 athletes competed—but for the British public it was a revelation: Severely injured people could still enjoy the thrill and camaraderie of sports. Prince Charles would later write of Guttmann’s contribution: “It is amazing to think that, not that many years ago, the treatment of paraplegics was generally regarded as a waste of time.”

In the years that followed, Guttmann’s annual competition grew—first among more British war veterans and then, in 1952, between British and Dutch veterans. In 1953, Canadians joined, and the next year so did Australians, Finns, Egyptians, and Israelis. Seven years later, in 1960, the gathering debuted on the world stage when it moved to Rome to follow the Olympics. This was the first official Paralympic Games.

The second official competition was held in Tokyo in 1964. When the Games return in 2020, the Japanese capital will become the first city to host them twice.

Kozo Kubo of Japan competes in the men’s 15km Sitting Biathlon at the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi.

Kozo Kubo of Japan competes in the men’s 15km Sitting Biathlon at the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi.

Organizers in Tokyo see the Paralympic Games as an opportunity to show how far Japan has come, said Yasushi Yamawaki, governing board member of the International Paralympic Committee and president of the Japanese Paralympic Committee, which runs the Nippon Foundation Paralympic Support Center out of its bright and barrier-free Akasaka offices.

Before 1964, he said, the Japanese public had little understanding of people with impairments. The Paralympics couldn’t even be held at Tokyo’s National Stadium because it wasn’t accessible to competitors with limited mobility. But when Japanese spectators saw foreign athletes who had jobs and lived independently competing against Japanese athletes who had come from hospitals and rehabilitation centers, everything changed, said Yamawaki. Crown Prince, now Emperor, Akihito was so inspired that a year later he helped create the Japan Sports Association for the Disabled.

That organization has helped develop athletes such as Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald, who was born with spina bifida—an incomplete closure of the backbone and hernial protrusion of the membranes around the spinal cord—and uses a wheelchair to get around. She started playing sledge hockey in Canada, where she was completing a graduate degree. She was a member of the women’s national team of Canada from 2013 to 2015, and had hoped to form Japan’s first Paralympic women’s team when she returned home. But recruiting players proved difficult, and the early morning schedule didn’t help: she was getting up at 1:00 a.m. for 3:00 a.m. practice, the only ice time available. On the advice of another Paralympian, she tried power lifting and discovered she had a talent for it. She’s now training for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and also runs educational programs to teach schoolchildren about impairments.

“We found that children’s education is the most effective way to create a more inclusive society,” said Yamawaki.

Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald (center) played sledge hockey in Canada and is training for the next Paralympics.

Eri Yamamoto-MacDonald (center) played sledge hockey in Canada and is training for the next Paralympics.

Yamawaki also sees the Paralympics as a way to make Japan’s workplaces more diverse. By law, 2% of all positions at private companies with 50 or more employees and 2.3% of government positions must be held by disabled people—and that will likely increase over the next two years, said Megumi Tsukamoto, vice-chair of the Olympics and Sports Business Committee at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ). She said companies that don’t have available positions often provide jobs for people with disabilities by setting up “special purpose” companies. There were nearly 400 such entities as of 2014.

Tsukamoto said the Paralympics is an incredible resource for finding qualified candidates. “The athletes have a reputation for being energetic and having a great work ethic, and they can also help build a bridge for other employees to understand different worlds,” she explained.

Yamamoto-MacDonald hopes this will help Japan become more inclusive. “I really believe Japanese people are kind and humble, but when I come back to Japan from Canada it feels different; I’m always aware that I have a disability because people here always remind me.”

Getting around Tokyo in a wheelchair can be grueling. As Yamamoto-MacDonald explains, some train stations don’t have elevators or have escalators that only go in one direction; so she often has to wheel to the next station.

Jonathan Kushner, co-chair of the ACCJ’s Olympics and Sports Business Committee, said Tokyo should use the Games as an opportunity to make more of its public spaces barrier-free, and also to highlight how that will help not only disabled residents but also the city’s growing elderly population and other groups, such as mothers of young children.

The city is starting to move in that direction. By 2020, Tokyo Metro plans to have elevators and accessible toilets at all of its stations, plus multiple elevators at the stations nearest Paralympic venues. The company will also update its cars so that each has a wheelchair space and low-hanging straps in priority areas, said spokesperson Yusuke Shida. Tokyu Corporation, which already has barrier-free stations and accessible restrooms on its seven Tokyo-area lines, will add platform doors to all 64 stations on its three busiest lines, said spokesperson Hirokazu Yamanishi.

Still, making major infrastructure improvements will be challenging. Subways have significant space constraints, and renovation projects such as installing wider ramps or more elevators could mean putting existing projects on hold.

“Given the fact that it is the Underground, the space restrictions have been a particularly difficult problem to deal with,” said Shida. “In addition, we only have four years to carry out the plans, so it is extremely challenging; but we would like to strive for improvement in order to provide facilities and services that our customers can use comfortably.”

Then there are the buildings. Organizers plan to make not only sports venues barrier-free but also hotels, airports, and the passageways between train stations and venues.

Don’t expect to see all new construction though. Shinji Nakamae, director of Paralympic Games Integration for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, said the International Olympic Committee is pushing a reform agenda that emphasizes sustainability, so Tokyo will update existing structures rather than build new ones. In addition to constructing eight new sports venues and the Olympic Village, organizers are asking building owners to update their facilities to conform with recommendations laid out by the International Paralympic Committee with input from municipal governments and disability groups. That means renovating everything from doorways and showers to information centers.

Some event venues will require more modification than others. Take wheelchair basketball. Its spectators are often in wheelchairs as well, said Nakamae, so the stadium will need lots of wide ramps and hallways.

Across almost all Paralympic events, wheelchairs and prostheses play a major role. And while athletes from wealthy countries such as the US and Japan can afford top-flight technology, competitors from developing countries often cannot, leaving them at a disadvantage.

Keiichi Tsukishiro, a Japanese prosthetics engineer for German prosthetics maker Ottobock, hopes to help. He’ll be in Rio for his sixth Paralympic Games (September 7–18), working at the company’s free repair center where he expects to see athletes from poorer countries in the Middle East, East Asia, and South America. “Japanese and other top athletes rarely come by except to say hi, because their prosthetics are perfect,” he said.
At past Games, he replaced a lot of worn tires and busted brakes—and even rebuilt entire rigs for athletes, some of whom went on to win medals. “That made me very happy,” he said.

Satoko Fujiwara in the 2006 Table World Tennis Championships for the Disabled in Switzerland.

Satoko Fujiwara in the 2006 Table World Tennis Championships for the Disabled in Switzerland.

The technology top athletes use today could benefit non-athletes down the line, as it becomes more affordable. Researchers at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, for example, are working with Paralympic skier Danny Letain to create a new control system for bionic hands, which they say will provide a more intuitive experience for upper arm amputees. German silver medal cyclist Denise Schindler hopes to be the first athlete to race with a 3D-printed prosthetic: a bionic leg she designed in collaboration with software developer Autodesk. Such 3D printing could allow many more amputees to have prosthetics specially fitted to their bodies.

This new generation of prosthetics is so good that some observers say it could mean disabled athletes no longer need their own competition. Japanese sports writer Hirotada Ototake, who was born without arms or legs, has pointed to new technology in advocating for a combined Paralympic–Olympic Games.

That doesn’t look likely to happen anytime soon though, in large part because prosthetics have gotten so good. German Paralympian long jumper Markus Rehm, who jumps farther than any Olympian, had hoped to compete at the Olympics in Rio, but his bid was denied after officials said he could not prove his prosthesis didn’t give him an advantage.

Sports6xSports5Izu Velodrome—Cycling (top), Nippon Budokan—Judo (left), Yoyogi National Stadium—Badminton and Wheelchair Rugby (right)

Still, some organizers of the Paralympic Games say setting world records is beside the point. “The Paralympics has a different, unique identity from the Olympics that we hope will be the basis for creating a more inclusive society,” said Yamawaki.

Getting more people to actually see the Games is half the battle. In Japan, at least, there will be ample opportunity: NHK plans to run about 120 hours of broadcast coverage of this year’s Rio Paralympic Games—nearly three times more than they broadcast from London in 2012. They plan to do the same when Tokyo plays host in 2020.

Events such as soccer for the visually impaired, in which players rely on the sound of the ball and each other to score goals, show how much people with impairments can accomplish, said Yamawaki. His organization has set an ambitious goal for Japan’s Paralympians to win 20 to 23 medals in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games as a way of building excitement and creating sports heroes who don’t fit the traditional mold.

In that way, the modern Paralympics still align with Guttmann’s original vision for them. And, in fact, many Paralympians are still in the military. In Sochi, 18 of the 74 members of the US team were veterans or service members. A similar number are expected to compete in Rio.

One of them is Angela Madsen, a United States Marine Corps veteran who has a spinal impairment related to surgery following an injury she sustained in service. Madsen competed as a rower in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games and a shot-putter in London in 2012, where she took home a bronze medal. She hopes to get some new hardware in Rio and perhaps even in Tokyo—if she can stay competitive that long.

But the Games have meant more to her than just the chance to stand on a podium. She said they have given her life new meaning, and she credits the Paralympics with keeping her from becoming one of the nearly 2,000 US veterans who commit suicide each year. “It has saved my life,” she said.

Angela Madsen, a United States Marine Corps veteran, competed as a shot-putter in London in 2012

Angela Madsen, a United States Marine Corps veteran, competed as a shot-putter in London in 2012

Abigail Leonard is an award-winning producer, writer, and journalist who has worked for PBS, CNN, ABC and Al Jazeera America.