Japanese volleyball Olympians share their skills with refugees in Nepal

Three members of Japan's gold-winning women's volleyball team in the 1976 Montreal Olympics recently visited eastern Nepal to share their knowledge and skills with young refugees.

An Olympic masterclass. Takako Takagi, known as Takako Shirai when she won her volleyball Olympic gold medal in 1976, does stretching exercises at Beldangi II camp.   © Photo Kishimoto/K.Yamazaki

BELDANGI II REFUGEE CAMP, Nepal, April 11 (UNHCR) - Three members of Japan's gold-winning women's volleyball team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics recently visited eastern Nepal to share their knowledge and skills with young refugees.

Takako Takagi, Hiromi Ikeda and Katsuko Tanaka also donated volleyballs, special shoes and other sports equipment during their two-day visit last week to the Beldangi II camp, which houses refugees originating from Bhutan. The three married women were part of the 11-member team that beat the Soviet Union 3-0 to lift the gold in Montreal.

"It feels great to be here. More than technical training, we want the refugees to have fun and learn how to work as a team," said Takagi, who with her two colleagues recently set up an aid agency - Montreal Kai - aimed at promoting sport among youth.

"It is great to see how sports can bring refugee and local communities together and also encourage girls to actively participate," added Kaoru Nemoto, head of UNHCR's sub-office in the nearby town of Damak.

The visit was warmly welcomed by the children and teenagers of Beldangi II, one of seven camps in eastern Nepal that house some 106,000 refugees. They could barely control their excitement when presented with professional volleyballs to replace the cheap versions they had been using for years.

"We are happy to get the opportunity to learn and play with the Olympians," said Ram Bahadur as he practised with his friends on courts marked out on the camp's grassy football pitch.

Scores of young people took part in the morning training sessions with the three middle-aged Japanese women. "These kinds of recreational activities are needed in the camps to keep the youth positively engaged," said Binod Khatioda, who works with young people in the camp.

The visit was capped by a volleyball tournament gathering teams and spectators from all seven refugee camps in Nepal's east. Girls and handicapped children took part in what proved to be a very popular event. Plans are afoot to hold another tournament on June 20, World Refugee Day.

Takagi and her compatriots were pleased with their visit and programme, which also included photography classes for 14 girls from Japanese professional Koji Yamazaki as well as lessons from a sports trainer and a masseuse.

"It's definitely not a one-shot deal and we will surely find an opportunity to come again. I have made the girls promise that they will practise regularly, so I can check how much they have improved by the time I return," said the golden Olympian and star spiker, who was inducted into the Volleyball Hall of Fame in 2000 under her maiden name of Takako Shirai and also won a silver medal at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

By Shreya Mukherjee in Beldangi II Refugee Camp, Nepal