Tokyo (AFP)

Long jumper Sayaka Murakami obviously dreams of a medal at the next Tokyo Paralympic Games, postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus, but above all hopes for a lasting change in the way Japanese society treats people with disabilities.

Like many Japanese Paralympics, Murakami believes the Games, scheduled for next summer, will provide visibility and promote greater acceptance of people with disabilities, in a country where they sometimes feel pressure to stay away. public.

“It's a window of opportunity,” the 37-year-old woman told AFP during training in Chiba, southeast of Tokyo.

"I hope the Paralympic Games will be a chance for people to realize that people (with disabilities) live among them" and are part of society, she adds.

News of the postponement of the Games from 2020 to 2021 has been devastating for Sayaka Murakami, who lost her right leg in a train crash when she was 25 and competes with a prosthetic blade.

“I had worked so hard, and was planning to retire after the 2020 Paralympic Games. I was completely depressed,” she said.

But, little by little, the motivation returned: she decided to resume training in order to qualify for the Paralympics (rescheduled from August 24 to September 5, 2021), unless the pandemic leads to their cancellation.

"If I can win a ticket, I'll do my best to get a medal," she said.

Ahead of the Games, the city of Tokyo has worked to improve access for people with disabilities and promote Paralympic sports, but associations and experts warn that there is still much to do.

"Japan is not used to accepting diversity," said Motoaki Fujita, professor of sports sociology at Nihon Fukushi University and expert in Paralympic sports.

"People are often evaluated there based on their perceived economic productivity," he told AFP.

There have been improvements since Tokyo won the organization of the Games, but "the results will be totally different if they are canceled," said the professor.

- "Prosthetic legs are cool" -

Efforts have also been made in Japan to increase the visibility of people with disabilities.

TV stations have hired journalists with disabilities, and a fashion show recently featured models with prosthetic limbs, some of whom were athletes.

Kaeda Maegawa, who runs the 100m and long jump, paraded in a white skirt that showed off her metal prosthesis.

She says she understands that some people are reluctant to disclose their disability and worry about being seen as a burden in Japan.

“But, personally, I don't want to hide my prosthesis. I want to send the message that prosthetic legs are cool,” said the 22-year-old.

Since the Games were awarded to the Japanese capital, "media coverage of Paralympic athletes has increased and, as a result, more and more people are aware."

However, many questions remain as to how the Games will be organized, with complex discussions on measures to fight the coronavirus.

The pandemic is particularly serious for some Paralympic athletes, including Tomoya Ito, two-time Paralympic medalist in wheelchair over 400m and 800m, who suffers from an immune disorder.

“For me, there is no way to live with,” the virus, he recently told Japanese media.

Sayaka Murakami, whose bobsleigh champion husband is targeting the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, remains hopeful that Tokyo can host the event next year.

"The space for people with disabilities has gradually expanded in Japan. I really hope this is not a fleeting phenomenon, but a trend that will continue to develop."

© 2020 AFP