IWABUCHI Koyo: I will strive to win more than gold - I'll raise awareness of Para sports

Iwabuchi Koyo during Table Tennis Men's Singles of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Iwabuchi Koyo during Table Tennis Men's Singles of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

"With no search results of 'para table tennis video' showing up on the web, I decided to make one myself, and launched my YouTube Channel."

Amid the coronavirus pandemic that is requiring all of us to curtail our normal activities, there are many athletes who are continuing with their daily training routines ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games - many of whom share their thoughts via social media.

Among them is IWABUCHI Koyo, the world’s number three-ranked para table tennis player (as of June 2020, Class 9 - standing class), who spoke to Tokyo 2020 about his aspirations for next Summer.

Iwabuchi first appeared at Rio 2016 and is seeking his first gold medal at Tokyo 2020.

A respite offered to promote the appeal of para table tennis

Hoping to convey the appeal of para sports from all kinds of perspectives ahead of Tokyo 2020, I launched a YouTube Channel in February that I have been updating weekly.

I started filming and editing videos amid worries that the event might not be held due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Now that the Games have been postponed, I've changed my mindset and decided to continue posting new videos with the aim of increasing people’s knowledge of the sport over the next year.

Recently, my followers have been gradually decreasing as the Paralympic Games have been pushed back for a year and all other competitions are being cancelled. Nevertheless, I will continue this effort in the hope that it will attract as many viewers as possible and contribute to promoting para table tennis.

I create videos from various perspectives, including those introducing my orthotics and commentaries of my past matches. Sometimes I take great pains to come up with the right topic and wonder if I can really keep this up for another year. Still, I would like to see this work through until the Tokyo 2020 Games next year.

Impairments are not disadvantages to be pitied, but essential components of Paralympic sports

It was at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, the first Paralympic Games in which I participated, that I came up with the idea of creating videos. I had never really had the chance to play in front of an audience until then, so this elite sporting occasion was an eye-opening experience. During the event, I realised that many of the spectators were watching para table tennis for the first time and were not familiar with the sport.

Para table tennis embraces people with different types of impairments, and being an interpersonal competition, the best part of it for me is seizing an opportunity and taking advantage of it.

Once at a match, I saw Giada ROSSI from Italy, the world’s number one player in Class 2 (wheelchair class) hit a drop shot close to the net. Local spectators booed and jeered at the play, complaining that it’s not fair since the wheelchair opponent could never reach it. However, seeing her repeat the play until the end, the audience gradually understood that it was a skill she had acquired, the culmination of her hard work. When the game ended with Rossi’s victory, she was met with a standing ovation and a warm atmosphere surrounded the venue.

Obviously, she wouldn’t have been booed if people had known more about para table tennis. So, I thought a video that familiarises spectators at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games with the sport before heading to the match would be beneficial.

With no search results of 'para table tennis video' showing up on the web, I decided to make one myself, and launched my YouTube channel. Videos include my commentaries on the strengths and weaknesses of my potential opponents at Tokyo 2020. We practise and develop our game plan after careful examination of our weaker areas that opponents might identify and exploit.

Impairments are not disadvantages that should be pitied, but essential components of Paralympic sports. Therefore, I believe providing information on the impairments of opponents is also important.

Reset allowed me to appreciate the environment around me

During the stay-at-home period following the declaration of the state of emergency in Japan, our team members made an arrangement and took turns to use the gymnasium as teams could not congregate to practise. With no-one to return my ball, I found myself unable to play table tennis over an extended period of two months. This experience reminded me that one can only play sports when safety is guaranteed. I could not but be grateful for the environment that I had taken for granted.

Now, I ride my favourite bicycle a lot in my extra time. Before the self-isolation request, I could only ride to and from my house and the training facility. On a fine day, I travel along a river for a few hours, about 20 to 30 km in distance. Since my legs are impaired, it is difficult and painful for me to run on my own legs for a long time. Cycling, on the other hand gives me the pleasure of whizzing down a long road. I am really into this refreshing pastime. So much so, that I bought many gadgets and am on the saddle almost every day.

Another of my recent pastime is reading. One impressive book was “Paralympics and Japan,” a book on the Tokyo 1964 Paralympic Games. Para athletes that represented Japan at the time mostly lived in a sanatorium or were bed-ridden at home. People in a wheelchair rarely worked. Meanwhile, for athletes overseas, sports were a tool for rehabilitation, and most of them worked just like able-bodied persons. This fact left a strong impression on Japanese para athletes. I was also surprised at the huge difference in people’s awareness towards people with an impairment as well as the social environment between Japan and elsewhere at the time, and that was not so long ago.

Nearly 60 years have passed since the previous Tokyo Olympic Games was held in 1964, but even I still feel the difference in the awareness and environment mentioned above.

For example, although infrastructure in Japan is well established – streets are clean, not bumpy or rough, international para tournaments are rarely held. I myself have participated only once. The scarcity of para-related events held in Japan may be testament to the difference in awareness. On the other hand, Europe holds numerous competitions although streets are sometimes bumpy and rough, people seem to take these factors into consideration and there is a higher level of both support and understanding for the athletes.

It’s true that bumpy streets may pose a safety issue, but what’s important for us athletes are that events and matches are held. I hope Japanese awareness towards people with impairments will change.

Iwabuchi Koyo during Table Tennis Men's Singles of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Riocentro - Pavilion 3 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Iwabuchi Koyo during Table Tennis Men's Singles of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at Riocentro - Pavilion 3 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Tokyo 2020 / Shugo TAKEMI

Something above a gold medal

While most sporting competitions are cancelled before Tokyo 2020, I will think positively and do whatever training I had not been able to do before. Winning a gold medal is naturally a challenging target, but taking advantage of competing in my hometown of Tokyo, I will strive to put in a performance more than worthy of winning a gold medal to contribute to raising awareness of para sports.

I’m the type of player that often raises his voice during matches to push myself further. I hope spectators will join me when I do raise my voice, as it would be fun both for me and for the audience.

I hope that Tokyo 2020 will serve as a starting point for Japanese para sports to thrive going forward rather than being an end in itself. To this end, I am determined to demonstrate the best of my ability so that more and more people will become interested in and continue to follow para sports.