Athletes spread the word about Deaflympics

Athletes spread the word about Deaflympics

How many people actually know about the Deaflympics?

According to a survey conducted by the Cabinet Office in 2007, only 2.8 per cent of people in Japan knew that such an event for the hearing-impaired even exists.

That pales in comparion with the 94 per cent figure for the Paralympics, which is held in conjunction with the Olympics.

Organized by the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf, the Deaflympics dates back to 1924.

Sports events are conducted using the same rules as in the Olympics, except for starting signals and judges' directions, which are conveyed visually.

The Paralympics is limited to physically, visually or intellectually impaired athletes and bars those who are hearing impaired.

The 18th Winter Deaflympics will open on Saturday in Russia. At a pre-meet press conference in Tokyo earlier this month, members of the Japanese national team appealed for the nation's support, which has been a lingering concern for the movement.

The meet is usually held every four years, but this year's event will be the first in eight years.

The reason is that Slovakia was scheduled to host the 2011 Deaflympics, but fell behind in preparations due to financial problems and cancelled the event shortly before it opened. This was after many Japanese athletes had already arrived in the country.

The incident motivated the athletes, who were suddenly deprived of performing on the stage of their dreams, to reflect on the situation in their own country.

The low recognition of the event has caused funding problems even in Japan. The athletes took action themselves to amend the situation.

"Eight years ago, we were the only ones who joined together on this issue," said Hiroki Takashima, the Japan team captain who will participate in the men's alpine snowboarding. "However, our thinking now is that little by little we want to spread the word about the Deaflympics."

In 2013, the "Deaflympics support project team" was formed and organised promotional events. Athletes had positive exchanges with professional athletes and local teams. In January, they held a joint training camp with Hokkaido-based athletes.

Their voices have started to be heard by local governments. For the first time ever, this fiscal year the Tottori and Tokushima prefectural governments have designated some Deaflympics athletes for special funding.

However, such developments are still the exception and are far from solving the financial problems that plague the athletes.

While two-thirds of the costs for the 22 athletes at the Russian meet will be subsidized by the nation, the remaining ¥12 million (S$140,000) has to be borne by the athletes themselves. In the case of the Olympics, the Japanese Olympic Committee, sponsors and others pick up all of the costs.

Corporate contributions in support of Deaflympians were less than ¥1 million, according to the Japanese Federation of the Deaf.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will provide a good opportunity to put a spotlight on sports for the disabled. However, athletes barred from competing feel they face a huge barrier.

"We'd like to tell everyone that we have the same aspirations [as other athletes] for competing at the world level," one national team member said.

It was an important message. But the press conference was attended by only six reporters from TV and newspaper organisations.

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