Sleeping in the Paralympic Village: Japan
18 min read
Last Modified 22 June 2021 First Added 17 June 2021
When it comes to getting ready for the Paralympics, sleep is an important factor for an athlete. For Paralympians, this also means overcoming accessibility challenges that may arise in hotel rooms and preparation camps. But without a good night’s sleep, how can they expect to perform their best?
We talked to Caz and Anneli, from the British Paralympic Association about the preparation for the Tokyo Paralympics in 2021. Both Caz and Anneli help to scout suitable and accessible accommodation for their teams. This is a long process, which actually began as far back as 2015. They recommend changes to rooms, to make them more accessible, which also leaves a legacy of accessibility in cities they visit.
Here, they give an insight into the challenges they face and what Paralympians need to ensure they are well-rested and ready to compete.
Anneli: Hi everybody, my name is Anneli MacDonald and I’m the Preparation Manager for the British Paralympic Association. I run the pre-games preparation holding camp, which in 2021 will be held in Yokohama, Kawasaki city in Japan.
Caz: I’m Caz Walton, former Paralympian, and I have a foot in both camps really! I was immensely lucky that when I retired from competitive sport, I got a job with the British Paralympic Association, so I finished my daytime job on the Friday and started with BPA on the Monday, and I’ve been involved ever since. It’s been 26 years this year! I was immensely fortunate, and I’ve met some fantastic athletes, staff members, and people, and been to so many countries along the way.
Anneli: Caz is underplaying her hand slightly. She’s got multiple gold medals and the experience she passes on! I mean, we had a ball in Tokyo doing our accessibility audit, but actually, the impact of people in Japan seeing Caz and her showing them her gold medals from the ’64 Tokyo games, it was amazing seeing that. Caz, how many gold medals do you have?
Caz: I have ten Paralympic Gold Medals. Every one was a joy.
Anneli: Amazing! And how many sports Caz?
Caz: Oh gosh, I don’t know! I’ve done a number of sports and been lucky enough to be successful in several of them. I loved athletics and wheelchair fencing in particular; different challenges and I would do it again tomorrow like a shot.
Anneli: Finding rooms actually started so far ago that actually the pandemic hasn’t actually affected looking for rooms that much. I think the first recces to Japan were in 2015, when they look at which hotels we would be based at and what we would look for in a preparation camp. So by and large, our preparation camp was already sort of pencilled in in terms of area years ago. There were a lot of trips before I actually started at the BPA and then when we started really delving into the accessibility of the hotels and the bedrooms, and also the sports facilities that we used. We’ve done a number of recces around that. Caz and I went on a recce to Tokyo together with some occupational therapists to look at what the accommodation would be like [and] potentially what changes we could make.
Our partners have been amazing, we’ve had bathroom modifications done for us; we’ve had hotels learning about bed risers; so we do all sorts of things and it’s a process that does take a number of years. For example, in the Rio cycle there were things like rehinging doors so that opened outwards. I wasn’t in post in the Rio cycle, but bathroom doors that open inwards massively reduce the footprint in a bathroom, and so there were some doors that were rehung so that they opened outwards.
We look at mattress toppers for mattresses that are way too hard, just because of the impact it can have on an athlete’s sleep. We’ve also done quite a lot of bathroom modifications as well, we look to move beds further apart and around the room, so that we can have that channel for people to get up and down.
Caz: Also, not necessarily having the beds next to each other, but in an “L” shape in the room, just to make sure that there’s maximum amount of space. Also things like, if there’s a drop down on a sink, then perhaps having that reduced or even taken away so that wheelchair users can get their knees under the sink, because otherwise it’s an awful long way to try and wash. Just tweaks really, and I think we’re lucky because we have such an experienced team. I mean, I would put Anneli down as a “world expert” on bathrooms and bedrooms now. But I think because we have such a lot of expertise in place, it just makes such a difference because you know what you’re looking for, you know what you’re looking at. You can put yourself in an athlete’s place and say “this needs altering and that needs altering.”
And the other thing is of course, that hopefully with some of the changes that have been made, we can leave a legacy in whichever city we’re working in for that country’s athletes or even just normal disabled people so that they have the advantage of having life slightly easier when they go to a strange room too.
Anneli: I can give you a concrete example of that, it’s very bathroom specific, but one of our hotels in Japan has moved the toilet forwards 20cm for us, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s moved it forward so far that it enables a side transfer across onto it, so it’s much more accessible. And that’s something that because of us staying and their increased knowledge around accessibility, it means there’s a tangible legacy for people who stay there in the future. And it’s just a really nice feeling.
In the same way, one of our partners is a university, and they’ve created extra accessible toilets around one of their buildings which is used by the local population as well as the students, and so they’ve created extra accessible toilets for us, so the swimming pool level now has a fully accessible bathroom. There’s little things like that every cycle that we do that it’s so nice to think that there’s a legacy of what we do.
There’s actually a couple of websites that I used quite heavily when I first started and in Japan it’s really, really common for hotels to put their room plans on their website, which isn’t often the case in the UK, but actually a diagram of where everything is, and that includes the bathrooms and the bedrooms and the placements of the bed. So there’s several Japanese websites that list all of these and people can leave reviews, and likewise there’s actually an app you can download and it’s about the accessible routes between places. So you can plot your route as you’re out and about in Tokyo and you can say where you’ve had accessibility challenges. So that sort of the tech-savvy element of Japanese culture meeting the accessibility, which is really quite nice.
In September and October 2019, our rowing team held a test camp out in Japan, and they went through what they would do in their preparation camp in 2020, as it was going to be then. On one of their days off, they wanted to go and watch one of the Rugby World Cup matches, and they were fortunate enough to get tickets. But actually, in terms of crossing the whole of Japan to get to the stadium, which was slightly outside of the city, we used this app to literally find the accessible route across the city, because every subway has little elevators and things between floors, and sometimes it took longer getting down to the subway platform than it did the subway ride, because of the nature of the elevators and things. But we actually used the app with the rowing team, and it was just brilliant, it meant that there was no problem. They knew they could get to where they wanted to go and they could log it and leave feedback if they wanted.
Anneli: Good question! So, in the preparation camp, I guess our bedrooms are hotel bedrooms. So, they’re quite spacious and usually twin-share, in some cases single-occupancy. They’re really like any other typical hotel room, but I guess we add a few little tweaks, don’t we Caz, to either make them more accessible, or more appropriate for athletes who might be getting over things like jetlag, or acclimatising to the climate in Japan, which is obviously quite a bit warmer than here in the summer.
Caz: Yeah, and I think we’ve struggled a little bit to find a number of rooms that have total accessibility, as we always do, because hotels are not set up for this. For example, we may have 30 – 40 wheelchair users, which present a whole different challenge in terms of accessibility. And there’s such a difference between hotels and the Olympic/Paralympic Village, because the Paralympic Village tends to be, by comparison, quite Spartan, I guess. It’s noisier and there are certainly less luxuries in it, so the transition between the two is quite a challenge too, without having that pre-knowledge, or managing expectations. But the disparity is with the Village, we’re all housed pretty much in one area, so one building. Whereas with the prep camp, we could be in four, five, maybe even six different locations. And everyone may differ, from University, to hotel. I’ve even stayed in atomic bomb shelters, and air force bases, as part of the accommodation. So, it’s just so varied and that’s what makes it interesting I think.
Anneli: I think space is always a really big one for us and the layouts of the rooms. It’s something we encounter all over the world, even in the UK. I think the space one in particular is relevant in Japan. Tokyo is a really densely populated city, and our preparation camp is outside of Tokyo, but obviously really, really large bedrooms which have turning circles that would enable somebody potentially in a wheelchair, or even athletes with a large number of kit bags. It’s those kind of things that we look for. A lot of the athletes will turn up with three suitcases and they’ll be moving kit around. There’s access to bathrooms, space beside the bed. We have all sorts of challenges which are partly the nature of the size of our delegation. We can have up to 30 or 40 wheelchair users in our group. We sort of cover every end of the spectrum.
Caz: Hotels do tend to have the advantage of you’re much more likely to get a single or a double room, as opposed to in an apartment where you’re living. You’re much more likely to have noise and light “pollution” in the Village. It’s just so variable. I think too, you’ve got the challenge of finding accessible bathrooms, preferably en-suite, to go along with the accessible bedrooms. But space is absolutely key and preferably having space around the beds as well because different athletes, whether they be mobility impaired, or have other disabilities, could prefer to get into the bed one side rather than the other. Very often you’ve got beds that are sited up against a wall, which is something else that we have to look at. So, it’s not just the space, it’s the accessibility of the bed to the athlete and height as well. It’s certainly something that varies so much from games to games that you could never give it up because you’d never get bored.
Anneli: I think the other thing is that every athlete’s needs are really individual. Some athletes need space under the bed, some mobile hoists, there’s space around the bed and mattress firmness as well. So I guess, it’s all those combinations of factors. And we’ve been really lucky, we’ve worked with some fantastic partners in Japan, and we’ve actually really delved into the nitty-gritty of accessibility with not only our hotels, but also the city governments and universities which are hosting us. So, we’ve had partners who’ve been really keen to learn and really keen to be involved in every step of the journey, even in just little things. Even little things, like it’s no trouble to just email them and ask them things like “is there a power socket right next to the bed” that somebody might need to plug equipment in for them for overnight. “What sort of blackout blinds”, hotels are usually really good for blackout blinds and that helps with things like jetlag recovery and athletes planning their sleep schedules when they arrive.
Caz: The type of bed can make a difference as well because, it’s true to say, there’s no such thing as a “perfect height” on a bed. It depends on the needs of the person using it, and I guess that depends just as much whether you’re able-bodied or whether you’re disabled, but I perhaps slightly more imperative to us. If you’ve got a bed without any legs, that is sort of a divan type bed, you can’t put bed heighteners underneath, which normally do fit into the legs of a bed. So if you want to raise the bed it becomes much more difficult. The height and firmness of the mattress is also important. You want the mattress to be a certain firmness, because otherwise it’s quite difficult to get off because you sink into it. On the other hand, you don’t want it to be too firm because if people have skin viability problems, and things like buttons in mattresses, can cause a problem. You can have an athlete that would go to a games, go to prepare, and end up the beginnings of a bedsore and not being able to compete. And it sounds quite trivial, doesn’t it? But small things just make such a huge difference.
Anneli: We’ve got several teams who travel with their own mattress toppers, and lots of athletes travel with their own pillow. I think there’s that element of if it’s what you’re used to at home, and you really have a particular pillow firmness; I know a lot of hotels offer a multitude of pillow type, but sometimes it’s easier to just take your own and so we have a lot of athletes who do that sort of thing as well, to ensure that when they get there and they get off the plane, they can really just go to their room and if it’s time to sleep, they can just get themselves set up.
Anneli: There’s been such a lot of work done by the institutes of sport here in the UK on the jetlag and acclimatisation for the Tokyo Games specifically, because of the time difference and the flights that we will get, there’s been a lot of planning and testing on that. So we actually have some rooms set aside at our preparation camp for the sports for athletes who might want to have a nap midmorning after they’ve come off the training field. I think a lot of the sports who are coming to the camp are also checking in the night before as it were, whilst they’re on the flight, so that when they arrive, they can actually just then go straight to their room and have a night’s sleep rather than waiting for that 3pm check-in. So it’s kind of a little bit like having a sleep pod there, they’re really getting there and having a that quick two hour nap at the most, maybe an hour, just to really start to get their body clock back on track. I think we did that when we went, didn’t we? We kind of arrived and we had a bit of down-time when we got there in Tokyo. It’s quite common. As I said, we do have a couple of bedrooms set aside so athletes can do that if they want to.
Caz: Timing of flights as well, and the time that you arrive and the time that you depart, to help to try and adjust things for you. And I’m not sure if it’s happened this time actually, but certainly in the past, when there’s a big time difference, as there is between us and Japan, some of the sports have advised their athletes to adjust their sleep times at home, so that when they get to wherever they’re going it’s less of an adjustment for them to settle in to the new time zone. It makes a huge difference, because the time difference between ourselves and Japan is so large that, the acclimatisation period is feasibly quite a long one, and that makes a difference to the time that you arrive in Japan before you move into the Village to start to compete.
Anneli: We have sports that have a daylight schedule almost. So that they’ll arrive in Japan, they might have their short-term nap, if they arrive in the morning, but then they’ll actually schedule when they’re outside during the day at very specific times, so that they can help use the light to acclimatise as well. Even down to their meeting rooms and things, so they’ll ask for a meeting room and ask is it possible to have that with all the blinds down, so that that can be during our dark period to help us acclimatise. Also, there’s definitely a recognition from the athletes and staff that even if you don’t sleep, the rest is beneficial and just that quiet time is good. It can be quite tiring when you’re walking about or pushing about the village or the pre games prep camp, you can almost accumulate unwanted steps, as it were, and everything’s new and everything’s really exciting because you’re at the Games. So there’s definitely an effort to reduce that, and when you should be resting to be resting and be quiet and if you can’t get the sleep at least be in the dark in your room.
Caz: I think with the accessible rooms, there probably isn’t a tremendous amount of difference. Possibly with the standard rooms, then you’re looking at maybe slightly smaller rooms in Japan than we were in Rio. I think with Tokyo, I can’t remember what the percentage of population is, but certainly a large percentage of population in Japan live in and around Tokyo, so space is pretty much at a premium, and my experience is that perhaps standard rooms are slightly smaller, the accessible rooms I wouldn’t say there’s a tremendous difference in.
Anneli: I guess that’s something in the prep camp that we mitigated against really, by we choose our hotels specifically for their room size and it’s not just the turning circle, it’s the luggage and all the other stuff that you might have, and it tends to be fairly standard. So I guess we kind of actively look to reduce that change across the Games cycle, because we’re always looking for something quite specific that will suit our athletes.