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Paralympics: Very big wheelchair tennis

Paralympics: Very big wheelchair tennis

The Tokyo Paralympic tennis tournament began when it didn’t start properly. “Heat Delay” was the message on the display boards of the outdoor courts in the Ariake tennis park on Friday afternoon. The blue playing fields lay empty in the humid heat, while at least one of the first round matches took its course under the closed roof of the center court. The Japanese Takashi Sanada defeated the Dutchman Carlos Anker 6: 1, 6: 1. After that, Sanada spoke of the honor of playing in front of empty ranks at home. And then came what had to come: questions about compatriot Shingo Kunieda, the gold favorites and first in the world rankings.

Sanada is in the shadow of Kunieda, like everyone in Japan’s team, but also at Kunieda’s side in doubles. So he knows what it is like to work with the shining light in his sport, which makes Takashi Sanada, 36, who was amputated since a motorcycle accident 17 years ago, even more interesting. He then also gave information. “I can’t imitate what he does in training,” he said of Kunieda, “but I can learn a lot from him when I work on the chair.” The chair work is the footwork of the wheelchair tennis player.

The team of the game host comprises 254 athletes. It is the largest that Japan has ever shown at the Paralympics. The first medals are already there, the swimmer Takayuki Suzuki, born without feet or right hand, won the first gold on Thursday. But tennis pro Shingo Kunieda, 37, stands out from the crowd. He has been playing great wheelchair tennis for 17 years and has won every Grand Slam individual tournament at least twice. In 2012 in London, he was the first of his sport to win his second Paralympic gold in a row. He is one of the few players who can make a living from wheelchair tennis. And now he’s attracting attention in his hometown. In Tokyo, he plans to take revenge for his quarter-final in Rio five years ago. Shingo Kunieda is the focal point of public interest, one who relieves his team just by being there.

In Japan, which is otherwise so progressive, many things are not yet handicapped accessible

Kunieda should therefore also be a valuable helper in the social goals of the Japanese Paralympics team. Because although there is basically no tendency in Japan to make too much wind about one’s own interests – Japan’s Paralympians also see the home games as an opportunity for their rights in their own country. You want change. Because in Japan of all places, which is often so futuristic and progressive, people with disabilities are still at the very edge of society.

“Compared to before, it has gotten better,” says Katsunori Fujii of the non-profit organization Japan Council on Disability. There has been an anti-discrimination law for people with disabilities since 2016. Ramps, elevators and aids for the visually impaired are compulsory in the large train stations. At first glance, a lot looks very good. But many small train stations are not yet handicapped accessible, says Fujii. The living conditions in the narrow districts of the cities are certainly not either. And then there are the barriers in the mind.

In Japan it is expected that personal interests and needs are subordinated to the majority so that the collective society stays harmonious and in flux. But when people with disabilities do not take their needs seriously, they usually do without normal social participation. There are 20 million people with disabilities in Japan in total, says Katsunori Fujii. “Still a lot of them don’t go out.” In fact, few people with disabilities are seen on Tokyo’s streets.

“People with disabilities were excluded as a matter of course. Not much has changed about that.”

People with intellectual disabilities are often housed in institutions. In 2016 there was a gruesome massacre in such a care facility in Sagamihara. A former employee and euthanasia fanatic stabbed 19 people in their sleep. Afterwards, many affected families did not want to reveal the names of the victims. Why? “Because we could be discriminated against,” the Kyodo news agency quoted a person in early 2020 who had lost a family member in Sagamihara.

Katsunori Fujii says: “During the post-war reconstruction and the rapid economic growth, people with disabilities were seen as a block on the leg. They were excluded as a matter of course. Not much has changed about that.” The members of the Japanese Paralympics team know that. Individuals know that there is another way. Miki Matheson, deputy team leader, 1998 Paralympic champion with the ice sled, married in Canada today, told AFP: “When I get back to Japan, I am often treated like a disabled person. In Canada, however, my disability is not noticed at all.”

The Tokyo Paralympics are intended to raise awareness in the island state of what people with disabilities can do. The Japanese could have seen this long ago with Shingo Kunieda as an example. He’s not a newbie, after all. When he lost his leg strength to a spinal cord tumor at the age of nine, his mother sent him to tennis. He recognized his talent, and then ambition seized him. His former coach Hiromichi Maruyama once said: “Data says that you have to have played at least 30,000 balls to master a stroke technique. So we counted every stroke.” Australian mental trainer Ann Quinn taught him his self-awareness as a champion. In 2006, she suggested that he say to his reflection in the mirror every morning, “I am invincible.” Kunieda did this for years until all doubts were gone.

Kunieda knows defeat anyway. But he doesn’t like her. When he lost to Belgian Joachim Gerard in the quarter-finals in Rio in 2016 with a sore elbow, it was a turning point. He changed almost everything after that. The trainer. The technology. The sitting position. And now he wants his gold back. He has spoken little about his story recently. That doesn’t mean he is denying it. He simply believes that he can convince his compatriots with victories and competitive athletic behavior. “I will concentrate on my results first,” he says, “and they will hopefully give Japan a good boost.” First the gold, then more inclusion – that is Shingo Kuniedo’s strategy. For Japan it is probably the only correct one.

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