Cornell University Press

“More Than a Normal Marathon”: Four Decades of Wheelchair Racing in Ōita, Japan

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November 15, 2020, was supposed to be a momentous day in Ōita, Japan. The city had long been set to welcome hundreds of wheelchair racers from all over the world to participate in the 40th annual Ōita International Wheelchair Marathon. A milestone event in its own right, the anniversary race was also meant to be an exciting postscript to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, one that would likely feature a hard-fought rematch of recent Paralympic medalists. But like much else in 2020, plans in Ōita changed dramatically with the pandemic.

Marathon organizers postponed the anniversary celebration. They opted instead to hold a scaled-back race in 2020 that only included athletes from Japan, a disappointing outcome for a marathon that has been hosting the world’s best racers every year since 1981. If all goes according to plan (never a given, especially these days), the 40th marathon will be held in the autumn of 2021 with appropriate celebratory pomp and the welcome return of wheelchair racers from abroad.     

A Ground-Breaking History

Launched in 1981 to commemorate the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons, the Ōita International Wheelchair Marathon was the first event of its kind, an international, wheelchair-only, long-distance road race. At the time, it was one of only a handful of long-distance races around the world even open to athletes with physical disabilities, and in 1983, Ōita’s pioneering race became the first internationally sanctioned wheelchair marathon.

In the words of the fourteen-time winner and current world-record holder Heinz Frei, Ōita’s marathon is “more than a normal marathon.”

Today it continues to be the world’s largest, featuring both a half marathon and a full marathon sanctioned by the International Paralympic Committee. Over the course of its history, Ōita’s marathon has welcomed more than 10,000 racers from more than seventy-five countries, witnessed several world-record performances, and played a prominent role in disability sports research. The event has become an unparalleled annual celebration of disability sport, a highlight of the region’s yearly calendar, and a sporting destination on par with Tokyo, Boston, or New York. In the words of the fourteen-time winner and current world-record holder Heinz Frei, Ōita’s marathon is “more than a normal marathon.”

An Overlooked History

Despite its groundbreaking history, for most people outside of wheelchair racing circles, Ōita’s forty-year-old race has remained unknown or overlooked. Even those who have heard of the event are often surprised to learn that it has such a distinguished past. In this sense, Ōita’s marathon is perhaps more emblematic than not. For one, sports for people with disabilities have only recently begun to attract broader awareness. For many people, familiarity with disability sports begins and ends with more recent international Paralympic Games, which have attracted increased media attention. The long history and existence of disability sports beyond these mega-events has received far less notice. Lack of familiarity with Ōita’s race also reflects the city’s peripheral status, some six-hundred miles from Japan’s more recognized capital of Tokyo. Even within Japan, few people would expect to find any international sporting event in such a location, let alone one of the oldest, largest, and most celebrated wheelchair marathons in the world.

Closer attention to Japan’s case also provides critical new insights on the profound, though often ambiguous, ways in which disability sporting events have influenced approaches to and understandings of disability in Japan and beyond.

Yet, Ōita’s emergence as Japan’s “cradle of disability sports” beginning in the 1960s—one of several points I examine in my new book—speaks to the importance of uncovering Japan’s historical engagement with disability sports. With sixty years of active involvement with the Paralympics, Japan has made multiple contributions to the broader movement, contributions like Ōita’s marathon, that have been largely overlooked until now. Closer attention to Japan’s case also provides critical new insights on the profound, though often ambiguous, ways in which disability sporting events have influenced approaches to and understandings of disability in Japan and beyond.

Featured: Author’s photograph from the 36th Ōita International Wheelchair Marathon in 2016.


Dennis J. Frost is the Wen Chao Chen Associate Professor of East Asian Social Sciences at Kalamazoo College, where he teaches courses on East Asian history and culture. He has written widely on the history of sports in Japan, including his new book, More Than Medals: A History of the Paralympics and Disability Sports in Postwar Japan.

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