Scouting for Japan's Paralympic talent

Anri Sakurai, right, practices wheelchair fencing in a tense atmosphere at a sports center for disabled athletes in Kyoto.

"Etes-vous prets?" "Allez!" Upon hearing the cues of "Are you ready?" and "Start!" from the chief referee, Anri Sakurai, 26, from Kyoto, sitting in a wheelchair, thrust her sword in the air. As it had been only a month since she began to practice fencing, her movement was clumsy.

Although she received strict instructions from a coach during practice, a smile showed on her sweaty face when she took off her mask after finishing practice.

With the Tokyo Paralympics six years from now in mind, efforts to discover and foster athletes are seriously under way.

Due to a lack of athletes, the Japan Wheelchair Fencing Association has had a low profile since the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

However, after Tokyo was chosen to host the Olympics and Paralympics, the association set out to acquire new athletes.

Sakurai was scouted as a future wheelchair fencer by the association. Sakurai, who was working at an outdoor equipment store, caught the association staff's attention.

Sakurai is enthusiastic about practicing fencing, saying: "I just wanted to challenge myself with something new. I feel it was a fateful encounter."

The association intends to increase the number of wheelchair fencers to 18 in the future.

The Japan Paralympic Committee, which has set a target of 22 gold medals in the Tokyo Games, carried out an event for physically disabled people to experience various sports in Tokyo and Kobe in August with the aim of discovering promising athletes for the Tokyo Games.

At a Tokyo venue, about 70 people aged 7 to 25 got to meet medalists in swimming, track and field, wheelchair tennis and other sports to learn firsthand from them.

To make the Games successful, it is also important to increase the numbers of volunteers and fans. In September, the Japan Blind Football Association held an official game of its Kanto League at Hiroo Middle School in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

The association intended to inspire volunteers who will support the management of future meets by offering opportunities for young generations to become interested in games.

Aria Otsuka, 13, a second-year student at the middle school, said that he was moved by watching a game that was more powerful than he had expected. "I'd like to watch other kinds of games," he said with great interest.