Tokyo Paralympics offer a beacon of light amid dark clouds


t was only at the start of last year that IPC chiefs were predicting that the Tokyo Paralympics would make history by becoming the first Games ever to sell out ahead of their opening ceremony.

More than three million ticket applications had been made in the first ballot and after the turbulent build up to Rio 2016, when only an eleventh-hour surge in interest turned a doomed Paralympics into the second-best attended in history, Tokyo seemed headed for a celebratory showcase of disability sport to rival, and maybe even surpass, London 2012.

And yet as that belated opening ceremony gets underway on Tuesday, the same cloud which hovered over Tokyo ahead of the Olympics only a month ago is lingering again – and may yet prove a little harder to dissipate.

In the wake of the Olympics, public health officials voiced genuine fears that the Paralympics might have to be cancelled, the two events coming as a pair only until one was out of the way, leaving the other potentially exposed.

The financial incentive so central to keeping the first half of the Tokyo 2020 show on the road was nothing like as lucrative when it came to the second, and the impact of welcoming the world mid-pandemic was no longer a phantom menace, the facts and figures laid bare as the Olympics, albeit largely indirectly, contributed to what is a continuing rise in Covid cases.

Would the Japanese people, so extraordinarily hospitable and welcoming earlier this summer, have the appetite to smile on through and put their best foot forward once more? And what of the athletes, some – though by no means all – of whom suffer from conditions that make Covid a much more potent threat?

As the Games get underway, it seems yet another round of ‘arigatos’ are already due.

On the plus side though, the Olympics also gave organisers the chance to prove that with proper restrictions events can – at least within their own bubbles – be staged relatively safely and provided templates for travelling nations. ParalympicsGB, for example, are employing the same protocols which saw Team GB athletes and staff come through their Games without a single positive result – save four false ones – from more than 20,000 tests.

While the Olympic Village was on tenterhooks in the build-up to the opening ceremony, athletes living in fear of the ping, ParalympicsGB chef de mission Penny Briscoe spoke on Monday of an “extraordinary mood… a mix of excitement, anticipation and elation” in the British camp, athletes “pinching themselves” that this was all, finally, really happening.

PM wishes ParalympicsGB team good luck ahead of Tokyo Games

For the biggest British stars – David Weir, Ellie Simmonds, Jonnie Peacock, Sarah Storey – the experience will naturally differ from that at the Games which made them household names, but from a distance, home support is likely to be as strong as ever, with Channel 4 continuing its commitment to para-sport by broadcasting the kind of wall-to-wall, free-to-air coverage that viewers grew so frustrated that the BBC could not offer during the Olympics.

A rough target of between 100-140 medals, just shy of the 147 managed in Rio, has been laid out as a tentative marker for British success, though the stark lack of para-competition since the pandemic began makes predictions extremely difficult.

Covid aside, the shadow of events across the continent in Afghanistan is also sure to loom large over these Games. The Afghan flag will be carried at Tuesday’s opening ceremony as a show of solidarity, but with no athletes marching behind it. Zakia Khudadadi, who would have become her nation’s first female Paralympian, and team-mate Hossain Rasouli are both unable to travel to Japan as a result of the chaos at home.

Yet amid the despair, we still find stories of inspiration. Abbas Karim could bring hope to a troubled people as he swims with medal hopes for the Refugee Paralympic Team, having fled Afghanistan as a teenager. The British wheelchair rugby team includes former RAF patrol commander Stuart Robinson, who lost his legs to a Taliban roadside bomb in Helmand in 2013.

Refugee Paralympic Team aim to instill message of hope for Afghans

IPC president Andrew Parsons spoke last week of how the estimated 15 per cent of people living with a disability around the world need these Games to act as a launchpad for a global movement of their own, -“WeThe15”, a permanent force for social change akin to the LGBTQ+ community or Black Lives Matter campaign.

But it may be that the rest of the population needs them almost as much. The Olympics, with their ideals of going faster, leaping higher, being stronger, were supposed to offer light at the end of the tunnel, acting as a symbol of global resilience.

Yet it is the Paralympics that are so often shown to have the greatest potential to empower, highlighting what Japanese wheelchair tennis star Shingo Kunieda beautifully called the “infinite possibilities of humankind”.

After 18 months in which the tales of adversity that are inherent to every Paralympic story have become more relatable than ever, perhaps it is second of Tokyo’s Games that can deliver a dose of hope.

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