Disability Studies Quarterly Blog
Review by Valerie Moyer, Stony Brook University, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
sports, Japan, physical disability
In More than Medals: A History of the Paralympics and Disability Sports in Postwar Japan, Dennis J. Frost takes a humble tack in presenting his research as simply filling a gap in English language scholarship on disability sports in Japan. Clearly, there is scholarship in Japanese on this topic, as shown in his citations. Yet, Frost’s work on the history of disability sports in Japan, published in 2020 during the run-up to Tokyo’s second Paralympics during the COVID-19 pandemic, feels incredibly timely and far more impactful than simply bringing existing scholarship to an English language audience. In the process of charting the development of the first Paralympics in Japan as well as the Nagano winter Games, the lost legacy of the Far East South Pacific (FESPIC) Games for disabled athletes, the ongoing Ōita wheelchair marathon, and the current organizational efforts at work to host the 2020 Paralympics, Frost disrupts dominant genealogies of the Paralympics. More than Medals frames Japan as an important global player in the formation of disability sports, while pinpointing the formation of inspiration and rehabilitation narratives that continue to shape the Games, and highlight the interplay of national interests, along with the social, economic, and political goals of hosting mega sporting events for disabled athletes.
This book would be a great addition to Disability Studies syllabi, particularly stand-alone chapters which each cover a different sporting event or series of sporting events, like the FESPIC Games which were held between 1975 and 2006, only to be subsumed into Paralympic history and largely forgotten (Frost 52–53). It disrupts a Western-centric Disability Studies curriculum by focusing on Japan’s disability sports movement and keeping those key figures, institutions, and national history at the center, rather than one aspect of an international narrative. It also offers great examples for teaching key concepts in Disability Studies like the medical model of disability, or the figure of the “super crip.” Through the historical media analysis around the first Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 1964, we see the heavy focus on sport for disabled athletes as “rehabilitative” rather than competitive, or sport in its own right – still viewing participants as patients rather than athletes. This narrative, of sports as a means for “overcoming” disability, and the conflation between “inspiration” vs spreading awareness continues in Paralympics today (Frost 40–42; Peers).
At the same time, we see moments when disability sport in Japan offered something else—an alternative model to what we are seeing now in Para sport, or to the historical trajectory often told and retold about the Paralympics. This is perhaps the best and most interesting takeaway of Frost’s book. In Paralympics history, the figure of Ludwig Guttman and the Stoke Mandeville Games looms large. Guttman was the hospital director at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England, which cared for paraplegic people after WWII. He founded the Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed as a way to promote sport at rehabilitation, and this is often cited as the precursor to the Paralympics. Frost challenges this, not by downplaying Guttman’s role, but simply by adding details of other organizations and efforts promoting disability sports in the post war era. From other European organizations putting on international competitions, local, disability-specific events were happening in Japan, to Nakamura Yataka and Watanbe Hanako who who saw the Stoke Mandeville Games and started organizing Tokyo’s first Paralympics, Guttman was clearly not the sole “father of the Paralympics” (“Paralympics History”; Peers). One key point of contention between historical figures emerges here – Guttman seemed set on keeping any version of the Paralympics open only to those with spinal injuries, while Japanese organizers of the Games were insistent on holding a multi-disability event from the start. This resulted in a two-part Tokyo Paralympics—one international meet exclusively for athletes with spinal cord injuries, followed by a national meet immediately after that was multi-disability (Frost 31). This contention reemerged as Nakamura wrote to Guttman on advice in forming the FESPIC (Frost 60). This revelation makes the Tokyo 1964 and the later FESPIC Games a more relevant, clear precursor to the current Paralympics.
The other key tension that emerges is not necessarily new within disability sports scholarship, but it is well-investigated and repeatedly mediated on in More than Medals. That is, the tension between sport as rehabilitative, recreational, or accessible, versus competitive and elite. Para sports, as they have grown and gained mainstream attention and funding, have become more about elite competition, in contrast to many of the sporting events in Frost’s book in which organizers ensured first time competitors participated and focused far less on athletic performance or medal counts. As the Paralympics and Olympic Games have largely merged, now running as parallel events within the same broad governing structure, we see more focus on elite, professional athletes, and high performance, while no longer needing the sheen of “rehabilitation” to make Para sports seem valuable in society. This is the double-edged sword of disability sports – a push to legitimizing athletic performance and competitions has also made these events less accessible to newcomers, more expensive to pursue, and ,therefore, more inequitable. Frost highlights the Ōita wheelchair marathon as an early example where accessibility and high levels of competition were part of the event from the outset – records were kept, winners awarded, high-level athletes invited. At the same time, entrance fees were not implemented until 2011, more categories of wheelchair athletes can compete, and there is some financial support for first-time competitors. Yet, even this shining example is threatened by overall trends in disability sports.
There is some discussion of critical or anti-Olympic activism in Tokyo, and Frost points out that the promised improvements in accessibility in the host city due to the Paralympics can serve as a “moral cover” for the extremely high cost of the 2020 Games (Frost 209). However, there is much more room to study the problems of mega sporting events in contrast with efforts towards greater access and equity for disability sports. There is also an unfortunate elephant in the room while reading this entire book, through no fault of the author. The COVID-19 pandemic sparked huge debate about whether Tokyo could or should have hosted the Olympics and Paralympics at all, even after delaying a year to 2021. With the publication in 2020, Frost could not have foreseen this at all, and all of the research is still important context to scholars and activists who write about the 2021 Games. The Coda, titled “The 2021 Problem” details an anxiety from disability sports advocates about what will happen to all of their effort, infrastructure, and funding after the 2020 Paralympics. Instead, given current context, holding the Paralympics at all could easily be written about as “the 2021 problem.” It will be interesting to follow up on this work, and Frost’s contribution of a detailed history will be invaluable.
In thinking about the future of disability sports in Japan pre-pandemic Frost offers hope that there can be continued innovation to make something else – different from what we have seen, to continue accessible avenues for disability sport, as well as the political and social goals that get intertwined. By looking back at the past and uncovering lost legacies, we are also reminded that current sports structures are not timeless or ahistorical – new structures and organizations can be formed by and for disabled athletes.
Frost, Dennis J. More than Medals: A History of the Paralympics and Disability Sports in Postwar Japan. Cornell University, 2020.
Peers, Danielle. “(Dis)Empowering Paralympic Histories: Absent Athletes and Disabling Discourses.” Disability & Society, vol. 24, no. 5, Aug. 2009, pp. 653–65. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1080/09687590903011113.
This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.
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