Oita International Wheelchair Marathon, an event held in southeastern Japan, attracts top athletes across the world and many local spectators: The Paralympic Games transform the region (Vol. 1)

In November 2018, the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon celebrated its 38th anniversary since its inception in 1981. World records in both men and women events were established and still standing, and it is recognised as the official IPC competition. Considered the world's top-class event, over 200 athletes in a wheelchair from all over Japan and abroad take part annually. More than the lustre of the records, this event has become known around the world for the affection and support expressed by the locals, with large crowds gathering along the marathon route to cheer the athletes. The perennial success of a Para sport event of this scale is almost unheard of in the world.
How did this happen in Oita, a prefecture with a population of about 1.1 million located on the eastern coast of the island of Kyushu renowned for its onsen (hot spring) resorts? And how has Oita transformed society through sports for people with impairments?

All six lanes filled with athletes in a wheelchair

Oita City, Oita Prefecture. When October comes around each year, the cycling road in the city centre bustles with hundreds of people gathered from inside and outside the country. Oita has become a destination for international tourists, and it is not unusual these days to see many visitors from abroad. During this season, however, Oita is overflowing with the energy of those gathered around the cycling roads in a festive mood. Many of them are not ordinary tourists but athletes in a wheelchair who have gathered from around the world. You can tell by their muscular build that these athletes in a wheelchair have endured extraordinary training to run a full marathon distance of 42.195km at full speed. Some athletes have serious impairments and attempt to complete the half marathon, while others are casual wheelchair runners who participate primarily to enjoy the sport and have fun. But what they have in common is that they have gathered from all corners of the world to participate in this marathon event, regardless of race, nationality or degree of impairment.

Says Tetsuji Ikenaga, who has been involved in the event operation since the 16th edition in 1996, "When I see them, I know that it's that time of the year. About five days before the event, the city is bustling with athletes who have come to Oita to participate in the marathon. So there is plenty of time for local citizens to meet the athletes, even if they cannot attend the race.”

On the day of the marathon, traffic is blocked off on the road in front of the Oita Prefectural Office building, which is the starting point for the race. All six lanes of the road are filled with athletes in a wheelchair. At the 38th competition last November, 223 athletes from 16 countries participated. Of those, 79 were entered in the full marathon, including top-class world record holders for the men and women events who were invited.

Wheelchair marathon speed faster than the men's marathon

Unlike your usual wheelchairs, the athletes ride light weight wheelchairs exclusively developed for racing. Top athletes race at a speed that averages over 30km/h, and their speed exceeds 50km/h on a downgrade (said to sometimes exceed 70km/h). If you consider that the average speed of a runner completing a men's marathon in just under two hours is about 20km/h, you can understand how exceptionally fast they run. In fact, Swiss athlete Marcel Hug, who won the fastest category of the men's T34/53/54, finished in 1:23:59.
“The way they all run at once is really spectacular. If you aren't watching carefully, they'll zoom by before you realise it. It's almost like a car race.” (Mr. Ikenaga)

The sight of multi-coloured wheelchairs racing down the road at the same time is spectacular, and the overwhelming speed cannot be felt in other sports. In Oita, the event has been broadcast live on radio since 1998, but recognition of this wheelchair marathon has increased since national TV broadcast began in 2016. Yet not so many people are aware that the event is not just one of the world's leading competitions, but also one that the locals affectionately support, and for that reason is a special event that is widely popular among athletes all over the world.

Uninterrupted support from the roadside and 2,000 volunteers

“Oita is a special place for me because it has a wheelchair international marathon event. It really is a great place and it's fascinating, but most of all it's the people that I find so charming.” Those are the words of South Africa's Pieter du Preez, who won the T51 category and ranked 4th in the 2017 world rankings. “Everyone is really friendly. Even in a wheelchair marathon race, the volunteers are always there for us at race time. This is what I find most enchanting about Oita and what makes this race so special.”

There are many athletes and officials who claim that the warm support of the local Oita citizens is the main reason why the event has continued for 38 consecutive years, attracting top racers from abroad. About 2,000 volunteers support the athletes during the event, and many citizens rush to cheer the athletes at roadside. Such a sight is unusual across the world, but here it has remained unchanged for nearly 40 years, suggesting that the enthusiasm is spontaneously generated. That is the major reason why many participants, both from Japan as well as abroad, come back repeatedly for the race. The opening ceremony which takes place the day before the race has recently been opened to the public, and many citizens can participate now. It has also become customary for the top racers to parade the shopping streets of the city centre, bringing the athletes and the local citizens even closer.

It all began with the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games

The Oita International Wheelchair Marathon has become unique for attracting both the local community as well as the international athletes. It was first held in 1981 as part of Oita Prefecture's commemoration activities for the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons, and it was featured as “the world's first wheelchair-only marathon”. (The first was only a half marathon; full marathons were held beginning with the third event in 1983.) At the time, athletes in a wheelchair were not permitted to compete in general marathons in Japan, so they decided to turn the rules around and become first in the world to hold a “wheelchair only” marathon.

Oita's approach to sports for people with impairments was far-advanced at that time, even relative to the world. This was because Oita's history with sports for people with impairments started way before 1981, going back to the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games. The first Paralympic Games for Japan became an opportunity to significantly change the approach to sport for people with impairments in Japan and influenced the public's perception, which led to the event taking root in Oita.