TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan, hosts of the next Paralympic Games in 2020 and reigning wheelchair rugby world champions, know they are in a unique position to promote the fast-paced, hard-hitting sport.
The Japanese team clinched their first ever World Championship in August, knocking out the reigning Paralympic champions Australia in a 62-61 nail-biter.
The match was typical of the frenetic sport, which sees quadriplegic athletes compete on a basketball-sized court and disrupt play by crashing their reinforced wheelchairs into opponents.
Originally called “murderball”, the sport has been in the Paralympics since 1996 and the fierce competition and high skill levels on show have made it one of the showpiece’s most popular events.
Japan’s head coach Kevin Orr, himself a winner of two Paralympic bronze medals in wheelchair racing, is full of enthusiasm that not only can his team improve on their bronze medal from Rio 2016 but also spread the sport to a wider audience.
“The idea of winning on home soil was very appealing to me,” Orr told Reuters at a team training session in Tokyo on Wednesday.
“One of my goals as a coach is not just to win Paralympic gold medals and those things but it is really to see the Paralympic movement move forward.”
Orr was himself inspired to become a para athlete by the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and is hopeful that the Tokyo Paralympics can have a similar impact on others.
“I think a lot of people look at it and go ‘that is neat, they are crashing into each other’ but they don’t realize that the players here have had significant injuries in their upper and lower extremities,” added the American, who has also coached the U.S. and Canadian teams in the past.
“That makes them eligible to play but they have gone beyond that and become great athletes and, for me, that is the beauty of wheelchair rugby.”
Japan has a strong connection with para sports and big crowds are expected at the 2020 Paralympics.
There has also been plenty of investment in recent years, including the opening of the Nippon Foundation Para Arena, where the wheelchair rugby team hold their training sessions.
The Japan Para Wheelchair Rugby Championship is also held every May, while Orr says Japanese media does a good job promoting the sport.
“To me, seeing the shows on NHK and some of the other TV stations where they are promoting Paralympic sport; explaining the rules, explaining the game, telling people what it is... It isn’t just novelty,” he said. “It is really trying to engage people in the sport itself and why we are so good.
“That is the thing that I really hope people see ... how good Japan is at wheelchair rugby, and really come to fall in love with us.”
Reporting by Jack Tarrant; Editing by Susan Fenton