While the number of municipalities planning exchange programs with countries and regions participating in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics has steadily increased to 464, only 38 of those have been registered as host towns to accept Paralympic athletes.

The main reason is that the cost of making the facilities barrier-free has itself become a barrier. But some local governments plan to accept Paralympic athletes by making use of existing facilities and devising innovative measures.

The central government promotes a host town initiative to help local governments deepen exchanges in sports, culture and economy with participating countries and regions. It gives the name “host town of a harmonious and inclusive society” to towns that have implemented or planned both exchanges with Paralympic athletes and barrier-free facilities and streets. However, the growth of the number of such towns has been sluggish.

“Surrounded by nature, it had a different charm from Tokyo. The warm cheers of the local people made me very happy,” said the Thai national boccia team’s head coach, Sumrit Kotsila, 46. In late September, the team held an advance training session in Odate, Akita Prefecture.

The Odate municipal government became a host town for Thailand for the Tokyo Games and was registered as a host town of a harmonious and inclusive society. For about 10 days from late September, about 40 athletes, including those in boccia and athletics, were hosted there.

The hotel building where the athletes stayed in Odate was old and had only one wheelchair-accessible toilet. The hotel widened the space between tables at the restaurant to accommodate wheelchair athletes and offered Japanese and Thai food.

Thai athlete Worawut Saengampa, 26, said with a smile, “The bath was a little small and there were some steps, but there was no problem because everyone kindly gave me a hand.”

The city also lacked wheelchair-accessible vehicles, so it consulted with a travel agency that has a wealth of know-how on tours for the disabled, and rented three welfare vehicles.

“I was worried about the lack of barrier-free modifications, but I realized the importance of a ‘barrier-free mind’ on the side of acceptance. I want to make use of the experience for future community development,” said a city government official in charge.

The city of Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, which hosted the German boccia team in March last year, made full use of its existing facilities.

For their accommodation, the city chose a community welfare center for the elderly and disabled. It is a building that houses a daycare facility and others, and has a barrier-free bath and toilets.

The visiting athletes were allowed to use the center for free, as their visit was an event different from the facility’s original purpose, according to the city.

“I think they were able to stay comfortably by making effective use of the existing facilities,” said a city official in charge.