✦ The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics were an absolute triumph in so many ways with an array of stereotype-defying, record-shattering performances witnessed across 13 days of competition in the Japanese capital.
Despite being delayed a full year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the competition saw some incredible moments of human achievement in the face of adversity with 163 delegations involved and a record 86 teams winning medals, 62 of whom claimed at least one gold.
Quite simply, every single athlete that competed at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games is a hero and deserves huge recognition, even if they didn’t quite manage to score a medal. Every single event and athlete that contested it was a triumph, regardless of the outcome and the final classification. It is therefore almost impossible to review a 13-day competition consisting of thousands of participants. So what we have tried to do here is pick a few of the highlights that lit up the competition and the living rooms of so many enthralled spectators watching from home all across the world.
Shortly before the Paralympics started in Tokyo, the USA withdrew their remaining military troops from their near 20-year occupation of Afghanistan which, subsequently and very suddenly, fell under the ruling power of the Taliban once again.
Afghanistan had two Paralympic athletes confirmed to participate at the Games but they were trapped, unable to leave Kabul under the new ruling and all commercial flights were grounded and mass evacuations at Kabul airport caused widespread chaos and panic. The dreams of Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli even getting to Tokyo let alone participating in their respective disciplines was seemingly over. A Japanese volunteer carried the Afghan flag during the opening ceremony in the absence of the two athletes.
However, four days into the Games and following a video plea from Khudadadi, it was announced that both she and Rasouli had, in fact, made it to Japan.
It transpired they had been secretly evacuated on a French aircraft at the last minute via Paris in what International Paralympic Committee spokesman Craig Spence described as a “major global operation”.
“Both athletes are here in Tokyo to fulfil their dreams, sending out a very strong message of hope to many others around the world,” Spence said.
Unfortunately 26-year-old Rasouli missed his 100m race but officials arranged for him to be included as a late addition to the men’s long jump final. It was a discipline he had never competed in before but that allowed him to become a Paralympian.
“Since childhood, this was my dream to compete in the Paralympic Games,” Rasouli said.
“It’s a very mixed feeling. Sometimes you feel like crying, sometimes you feel like celebrating… once you’ve realised your dreams, it’s difficult to express the emotions you are going through.
“We had very difficult days and nights spent at the airport. It was a very difficult situation... we were under so much pressure and stress,” he added.
“The fact that we are now out of Afghanistan we are very grateful, we are very happy.”
Khudadadi, 22, fought in the Paralympics’ first-ever taekwondo bout, something she was naturally incredibly proud of. However, the fear of it not happening and being trapped in her homeland was a harrowing experience for her.
“When the video was sent where we asked for help, we were in a very desperate and hopeless situation, we just wanted to… get out of the country.
“We asked for help from women all around the globe - from institutions and countries - which thankfully managed to come together and help us out [and] we managed to get to safety and to where we are now.”
It is expected both athletes will be processed as refugees in France and their families will be allowed to follow in due course so all can look forward to a brighter future.
Team Great Britain had an excellent Games, coming second overall in the medals table. They were led by cycling legend Sarah Storey who became Britain’s most successful Paralympian after winning her 17th gold medal, a full 29 years after winning her first!
After her women’s C4-5 road race victory in miserable wet and foggy conditions, 43-year-old Storey said she felt “a bit overwhelmed”.
“I feel like it is happening to someone else... but crossing the line first felt so good,” she said.
The video footage shared of Storey landing back at Heathrow Airport in London to be greeted by her two young children at the gate would bring a lump to even the most cold-hearted of cynics!