Athletes shoot for stardom to raise profile of Paralympics
Amid cries to nurture bona fide Paralympic superstars in Japan, Gurimu Narita, the men’s Pyeongchang Paralympic banked slalom champion, is certainly among the few athletes with the potential to become sports icons as famous as today’s able-bodied superstars.
While social recognition of both the Paralympics and Olympics in Japan is virtually the same at around 97 percent and 98 percent, respectively, according to a survey by a professor at Nihon Fukushi University in December 2016, critics point out many still do not know much about the athletes and their sports.
The few exceptions are people like Narita and men’s wheelchair tennis champion Shingo Kunieda.
“A valuable aspect of the Paralympics is people getting inspired by watching great performances by top athletes,” professor Motoaki Fujita said, adding that an environment must be created in which all people, able-bodied and disabled and from children to top athletes, can play sports.
Narita, who abruptly announced his retirement from snowboarding after the 2018 Paralympics in South Korea, is aiming to achieve an unprecedented “Grand Slam” by competing in the Summer and Winter Games of both the Olympics and Paralympics.
Shifting his focus to the Summer Games, the ambitious 24-year-old captured gold in the high jump at the Japan Para Championships in July 2018, giving the world a glimpse of his multiple talents.
“It is my dream of a lifetime to compete in (all four events at the) Summer and Winter Games of the Olympics and Paralympics,” said Narita, who has a left lower limb impairment.
According to a survey by Yamaha Motor Foundation for Sports in June 2018, Narita is the most recognized figure from the Pyeongchang Paralympics, with 50.9 percent of respondents saying they knew of or had heard about him.
When asked to link athletes with their sports, 84.1 percent of that group correctly said he was a snowboarder. Narita was followed by Momoka Muraoka, who was correctly identified as an alpine skiing medalist by 48.0 percent.
The most watched sport at the Pyeongchang Paralympics was snowboarding at 49.8 percent, followed by alpine skiing at 34.7 percent, the Yamaha survey said. Experts pointed out that their popularity can be linked to the medal-winning performances by Narita and Muraoka.
Narita captured the gold and bronze for the banked slalom and snowboard cross, respectively, while Muraoka bagged five medals — gold in the women’s giant slalom, sitting, silvers in the downhill, sitting and the slalom, sitting, and bronzes in the super-G, sitting and the super combined, sitting.
Since Narita was born to a well-known family of athletes, he was exposed to media attention from a young age. His older brother, Domu, and older sister, Melo Imai, competed in the Turin Olympics as snowboarders in 2006.
The youngest of the three siblings, Gurimu became a candidate for the 2012 London Olympics in trampoline and was also making a name for himself as one of the world’s top freestyle skiers for his age group.
After a devastating training injury in 2013, however, he was left paralyzed below his left knee despite a series of operations.
Kazunari Obuchi, a researcher at Sasakawa Sports Foundation, pointed out in his study that Narita’s popularity stems in part from his wide recognition, even among people not interested in the Paralympics.
Among survey respondents who didn’t watch the Pyeongchang Paralympics but nevertheless knew or had heard about Narita, nearly 80 percent said he was a snowboarder, Obuchi said.
“People want to cheer for him because Narita, who had fallen to a low point in life at one point, was able to achieve the exhilarating success of reaching the top through overcoming hardships and setbacks,” Obuchi wrote.
His appearances on TV and YouTube have attracted attention as well. He is known for his unconventional training methods — playing golf to improve concentration and shogi (Japanese chess), to enhance his ability to make predictions.
After retiring from snowboarding, he tried out nearly 10 able-bodied sports, including canoeing and shooting, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. For the 2020 Games, however, he has decided to concentrate on making the Paralympic high jump team.
“I am bubbling with excitement. I may be able to make the impossible possible,” he said.
Narita’s motto is “to challenge,” as he understands that the road to competing in the rest of the three events will not be a cakewalk and that winning medals is the most convincing way to achieve stardom.
In the meantime, among the sports Japan is expected to be in the gold medal hunt for is wheelchair rugby, after defeating No. 1 Australia at the world championships this past summer.
Since then, Japan’s captain Yukinobu Ike has decided to cross the Pacific to play in the U.S. league to gain valuable experience.
“I am setting my eyes only on the gold medal. I would like to spend my time on achieving that goal,” he said.
With the Games less than two years away, Japan has ratcheted up efforts to improve barrier-free transportation and other facilities to welcome guests from around the world.
According to data from the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry in December, 89.4 percent of facilities hosting an average of at least 3,000 passengers per day had reached “step free” status by installing elevators and making other modifications as of the end of March 2018, up by around 2.2 percent from a year ago.