Hiroaki Kozai will compete for the host nation at the Paralympic Summer Games. Two hearts beat in his chest, because for a long time the Japanese 3.5-point player played for Germany. What difference there is between Japanese and German wheelchair basketball, he reveals in the interview. And he shares his personal take on what it means for Japan to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games during a pandemic.
Hiroaki, what brought you to Germany in 2013?
I had just graduated from university in the U.S. at the time and was looking for a wheelchair basketball team in Europe because I wanted to improve and prepare for Tokyo 2020. That’s when I got in touch with Holger Glinicki, who was still the coach of BG Baskets Hamburg at the time, and I joined the team.
But you didn’t stay in Hamburg.
No, in 2017 I switched to RSV Lahn-Dill. I mean, Hamburg was great, a great team. But I also thought it was great how Lahn-Dill played. And especially I loved how Michael Paye played. I wanted to learn from him and Lahn-Dill was okay with that.
Do the Germans play a different kind of wheelchair basketball than the Japanese?
Yes, we Japanese play differently, I think. Of all the teams, we might have the smallest body size and that’s a big disadvantage for basketball. When I was in Hamburg, I had a teammate who was 6,5 feet tall. A lot of European teams have height and they’re also heavy. They can use their body weight to get past the other players. We don’t have that in Japan. But we are fast and we have great chair skills. And we use that speed especially on defense.
In 2019, you went back to Japan to prepare for Tokyo with the Japanese national team. What significance does it have for you to be able to represent your home country at the Paralympics?
This is a really great honor for me. And I don’t take it for granted. Some players were not selected and I feel responsible to play for them as well.
And the goal is gold?
Of course I want to get the gold! (laughs) And if it doesn’t go that way, then at least bronze.
So there should definitely be a medal for you. How are the preparations for this goal going?
It’s really difficult. We might not have any more games before Tokyo. I mean, we don’t know yet, but probably not. But we are using the time to work on our speed and defense. And we also want to use our speed on offense. That’s how we’re preparing.
Couldn’t it be difficult for you if you suddenly have to play against former German teammates?
No, it’s fun, isn’t it? It’s always a pleasure to play against them!
So far, we have assumed that the Paralympics will take place. How safe is this assumption?
We never know what will happen, we learned that last year. I don’t have an answer to that. It’s my way of thinking, to do only what we can control. And we can’t control that.
Is Japan as a country already preparing for the Paralympics?
Right now, the media is showing more of the Olympics because that’s happening earlier. But media coverage of the Paralympics has changed a lot in recent years. I feel that people have started to recognize sport for people with disabilities and not just see it as part of rehabilitation. We also have a lot of spectators and fans now, that didn’t exist before.
Speaking of spectators – what will it be like to play without them?
If there are no spectators at all, I will certainly miss them. It will also feel very strange…like the game is just a practice. I’ve never had this experience of playing in such a huge arena without an audience. It’s a strange feeling, I think. The organizers are still trying to find an idea how to allow at least some domestic spectators. But I’m still sad that no spectators from other countries are allowed in. Some former student friends from the U.S. were actually planning to visit me and then travel around Japan with me for a bit. Unfortunately, that’s not possible now.
Finally, let’s stay with Japan: What does it mean for the country to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the middle of a pandemic?
The pandemic has brought down our economy, like everywhere else in the world. Many stores are closed, restaurants can’t operate…and hosting the Games could cost even more money. Plus, we just won’t have spectators from overseas. But many of the stores expected people to come. That is one of the reasons why some are against hosting the games. I understand why those people feel that way. You never know what’s going to happen. But again, that’s something I can’t control. And thinking about it all the time is a waste of time. So I just try to prepare myself. So that in August, when the Paralympics start, I’ll be the best version of myself.
Written by Jana Rudolf | Photo: private