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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Making para-sports fun for everyone

Noriko Okada, Fumio Kanda

Nov. 30, 2017

Making Para-Sports Fun for Everyone

There are less than 1,000 days to the Tokyo Paralympics, and organizers are pulling out all the stops to get more people to the games.

Engineers and artists are joining the multitudes working to boost the mood. One company has come up with a way to bring the spectator right into the action. They aim to show that para-sports are more exhilarating than ever.

Athletes, celebrities, and officials came together for an event. One of Tokyo's most prominent tourist spots has been lit up in the Paralympics colors of red, blue and green.

When the Paralympics get underway, there are going to be a lot of opportunities to watch events. Athletes will be competing in 22 sports.

But an opinion poll shows that only 36 percent of people say they would actually attend one of the events.

The head of the Japan Paralympic Committee has expressed concern.

"The number of people who think they may go to watch para-sport events is still not large," says JPC Chairman Mitsunori Torihara. "We have to work hard over the next 1000 days to generate interest so that all the para-events get a boost."

A software company in Tokyo has come up with ideas on how to fill the seats. The firm develops programs using AI and virtual reality.

Company president Yoshiaki Sawabe has been in a wheelchair for much of his life. He is also an advisor on the Paralympics organizing committee.

"The first step is to increase the number of opportunities where people can experience para- sports," he says. "Then, we have to develop the programs into purely enjoyable forms of entertainment."

The first sport to catch their attention was wheelchair racing in which athletes can reach speeds of up to 60 kilometers per hour. A program allows players to experience a race in virtual reality.

One game was released in January this year. Since then, the company has been promoting it at sporting events such as marathons.

Users get to sense the speed and vibrations that para-athletes feel in a race. The game was put to the test by wheelchair racer and one of Japan's top para-athletes, Masayuki Higuchi.

"There are few opportunities for people to actually try out a sport wheelchair," he says. "This game lets people experience one easily."

Sawabe and his staff set out to find other para-sports that they could develop into games that are fun for all.

They ended up deciding on boccia. Players from 2 sides toss a ball toward a white marker ball. The team that throws the most balls closest to the marker wins.

But Sawabe says there are still certain things about the sport that need to be done to make it more popular.

"It's tough for referees," he says. "How many times do they have to measure the distance between balls?"

Referees have to carefully measure the distance between the marker and a thrown ball without touching the other balls. This can take up to several minutes. Sawabe believed his firm had the technology to resolve the concern.

The idea is to have a sensor installed into the upper frame of the unit. The sensor automatically measures the distance between the balls and calculates the score. This eliminates the time needed for measuring. It also means that several people can play at the same time.

Music and lighting add fascination. The court size is also changeable depending on the venue. Sawabe hopes to eventually get the game into bars, nightclubs and restaurants.

"Our goal is to fill up the seats at the 2020 Paralympics and make them more exciting than the Olympics," he says.

Sawabe says he intends to donate 10% of proceeds from sales to the Japan Boccia Association, to help train athletes and promote the sport.

Digital technologies are helping boost the entertainment factor of para-sports in the hope of drawing in more people.

The question now is whether that will be enough to fill the stadiums at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Celebrating the Olympic Spirit of the Arts

The Olympic and Paralympic spirit is not exclusive to the world of sport. The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, envisioned combining sport and culture, and the "Cultural Olympiad" was born.

It's a program of cultural events held in the host country in the 4 years leading up to the Games. Last Sunday, Tokyo 2020 organizers put on a "Cultural Olympiad" Night.

A night to remember--an evening of dance and music in the heart of Tokyo.

The spirit of the Olympics goes well beyond sports. That's why in the run-up to 2020, a series of events focused on art and culture are taking place across Japan, in what's referred to as the Cultural Olympiad.

The only rehearsal for one particular event was led by theater director Amon Miyamoto. He's known in and outside Japan for transcending the boundaries of musicals, operas, kabuki plays and beyond.

"In the spirit of Coubertin's modern Olympics, sport and culture have allowed us to appreciate each other and push the boundaries of what humans can achieve," says Miyamoto. "I'm convinced people can create more interesting collaborations, and that's the kind of excitement and emotion I want to convey."

Miyamoto opted to bring together a striking pair of artists. Rock star Miyavi, known for his enthralling guitar solos, and Koichi Omae, a dancer who lost a leg in a traffic accident and who also competes as a parathlete.

Miyamoto focuses on the pair's interaction. He guides them through the sequence to ensure a perfect symbiosis.

"This opportunity is really good to show what we can do," says Miyavi. "I really hope this whole event and everyone who's got involved in this event could be a bridge for the whole world and Japan."

"Japanese Taiko drums are amazing, and Miyavi's guitar solos are just so cool, it feels like a real celebration," says Koichi Omae. "It's a real privilege for me to be on board."

The concert begins. The event pays homage to the spirit of the Olympics through a wide variety of artists and performers.

Symbolizing the energy of youth, and the future of Japan, a singer and a group of dancers, all high school students.

Miyavi and Omae finally hit the stage, with a performance on the main theme of "Chariots of Fire".

"Whether on an artificial leg or on a wheelchair, I want to demonstrate what human beings are capable of, and give a boost to the Paralympics," says Omae.

"Our mission is again to unite people and that’s the power of music. And I am also so honored to be here as a musician," says Miyavi.

The countdown to Tokyo 2020 goes on, and so does the Cultural Olympiad -- with its universal message of harmony and peace.

"Tonight, we could really feel how music allows us to share our emotions and become one," says Miyamoto. "And once again it reminded us of the huge potential of arts and culture."