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Women in the Lead

Yuko Arimori

Discovering the Power of Sports

Yuko Arimori won two Olympic marathon medals, and she’s been using the power of sports to help others ever since. As president of the NPO Hearts of Gold, her mission is to bring hope and courage to people regardless of country, race or physical ability.

Renowned marathon runner Yuko Arimori first captured the hearts of people by winning a silver medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, followed by a bronze in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She was named Japanese Athlete of the Year in both those years. In 1996, Arimori also became the first runner ever to be awarded with professional status as an athlete by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations, making a great contribution toward helping her fellow amateur athletes in the country legitimately accept sponsorships.

That same year, the newspaper Sankei Shimbun invited Arimori to lend her athletic experience at the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon to both promote the banning of landmines and to help children in Cambodia affected by landmines. Engaging with children through sports seemed natural to Arimori, since athletics have played an essential role in her life since a young age. Her days as a runner began after winning a 100-meter race in junior high school—the first time she felt real confidence in herself. “Winning with my own feet gave me so much self-confidence,” Arimori recalls. “And it made me want more for myself.”

Arimori’s recognition of the power of sports was boosted again in 1997 during the second year of the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon, when Cambodia was on the brink of civil unrest. All people, regardless of political belief, were invited to stand together at the starting line and call for peace in Cambodia.

“I realized that sports had the power to make society healthy (by preventing conflict),” Arimori says. “Sports could bring about a change for peace.” That realization led her to create her charity NGO Hearts of Gold in 1998, the first nongovernmental Japanese organization to focus on sports as a means for societal change.

Working primarily in Cambodia, Hearts of Gold promotes development through sports and programs that help children gain skills for independence. In particular, the organization has worked closely with the Cambodian government to improve the country’s physical education program, and elementary and junior high schools there have now begun implementing physical education classes.

Arimori believes that through sports, people not only learn about physical health but also about mental health in regards to teamwork, respecting your competitors, and following rules. “These skills are necessary to live in society,” she declares. “Our goal isn’t to teach people to become athletes, but rather through sports to provide them with the strength to live.”

Sports have continued to set Arimori’s course. Currently the director of Rights, Inc., whose motto is “Be happy with SPORTS,” she is also the president of the Special Olympics Nippon Foundation. First asked to participate in the latter organization by an associate in 2001, Arimori simply accepted the roles given to her. “I handle things as they come,” she notes. “I don’t choose the positions. But I believe that there has to be a reason they come to me.”

As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics approach, Arimori hopes that more people can discover that sports have the power to make people healthy and happy.

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