By Jack Tarrant and Yoko Kono
CHIBA CITY, Japan (Reuters) – Sitting volleyball could be one of the most thrilling and loudest of the Paralympic disciplines at next year’s Tokyo 2020 Games if events during the Sitting Volleyball Challenge tournament in Chiba on Friday are anything to go by.
In front of a raucous crowd of local school children, the players were not to be drowned out as their shrieks and cheers echoed around the Chiba Port Arena after every point.
Japan have been joined by Italy, Canada and world number two China in the round-robin competition seen as a warm-up for Tokyo 2020 and the chance for the athletes to get more international experience.
Although not officially a Paralympics test event and not held at the Tokyo 2020 venue of Makuhari Messe some 10 kilometers away, the players were delighted to gain an experience of Japan ahead of next year’s Games.
“It is nice to be able to come here and see the different sights as well,” said Canadian captain Danielle Ellis after her side’s 3-1 loss to Italy.
“So it is not that we are wanting to see all these different things next year when we come back.
“Hopefully we will have been there and done that and hopefully next year it will just be game play every day.”
It is the first time in over a decade that Japan has hosted a sitting volleyball tournament, giving fans exposure to the sport.
More than 2,000 people have watched the first two days of action in Chiba — an indication of the popularity in Japan of para sports, where they are a common feature on television.
There has also been plenty of investment in recent years, including the opening of the Nippon Foundation Para Arena.
Japan may have lost 3-0 to rivals China on Friday but that did not dim the enthusiasm shown by the home crowd, giving the hosts a flavor of what they can expect next year.
“Yes, very happy (to have cheering of school children),” said Japan’s 52-year-old captain Michiyo Nishiie, whose team are ranked 10th in the world.
“We visit elementary and junior high schools to play volleyball with them too. Their cheering always reaches us and give us good energy.”
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant and Yoko Kono; editing by Greg Stutchbury)