✦ 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!
In another coup for Team GB, the men’s wheelchair rugby team won a shock gold against favourites USA, the first European team to triumph at the Paralympics in the high-impact sport once known as “murderball”.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be coming away with a Paralympic gold medal,” said Britain’s Stuart Robinson.
“I just hope someone’s got some beer somewhere,” was the response from Jim Roberts, who scored 24 tries in the final, when asked how he planned to celebrate the victory.
Another Team GB athlete took a starring role on the final day of competition in Tokyo. Part-time actor Krysten Coombs, who has appeared in the hit TV show Game Of Thrones, won bronze in the men’s badminton.
“Hopefully I can inspire other kids with achondroplasia and other types of dwarfism at home,” a proud Coombs said after his medal win.
“Show them that there is a journey, there’s a life and you can be successful with it,” he added.
Then there was weightlifter Herbert Aceituno from El Salvador. Born with achondroplasia, a form of short-limbed dwarfism, doctors said he would not live past three months.
Aceituno survived well past that mark then, after being bullied at school, got into weightlifting, earning his country an historic bronze medal in the 59kg competition in Tokyo.
“Disability comes from the mind, not the body,” are Aceituno’s wise words.
American Brad Snyder had previously won six gold medals in swimming at the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics but decided he needed a new challenge.
Snyder lost his sight during an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion while serving in Afghanistan 10 years ago. He opted to compete in the triathlon and became the first American man in either the Olympics or Paralympics to win a gold medal in the event.
Love is in the air
One of the most magical and touching moments was also one of the most romantic.
Blind runner Keula Nidreia Pereira Semedo of Cape Verde was left dejected after failing to qualify for the women’s T11 200m semifinals.
However, what happened post-race more than made up for the disappointment of missing out on a medal when her guide runner Manuel Antonio Vaz da Veiga got down on one knee and proposed. Semedo accepted which was met by rapturous appplause by her fellow athletes, all of whom are visually impaired and could not see, on the wet track at the Olympic Stadium.
“I thought this was the best occasion and the best place to do it,” Vaz da Veiga said.
Semedo admitted she had been considering retiring, but that the proposal made her rethink.
“Now I have an additional motivation to carry on after the Games, always with him by my side,” she said.
“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!”
Australia had a fantastic Paralympics, finishing in 8th place in the final standings with a total of 80 medals, almost identical to the 81 medals won by the team in Rio de Janeiro five years ago.
Self-proclaimed “rainbow roomies” Paige Greco and Emily Petricola were the first athletes to win a medal for the country in Tokyo when the cyclists, both making their Paralympic debuts, won gold in their respective events.
Greco broke her own world record in the C3 3000m pursuit final and a few minutes later, Petricola won the C4 pursuit gold.
Petricola, 41, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 14 years ago. She was introduced to the sport by rowing Olympic medallist Matt Ryan in 2015 and was coached initially by track cycling legend Shane Kelly.
“Words can’t describe how grateful I am to Matt Ryan and Shane Kelly for what they did for me,” she said.
“They’ve changed my life and they’ve saved my life. I was in such a dark place when Matt suggested this.”
The Aussies dominated in the pool too. Rachael Watson’s win in the 50m freestyle S4 set a new Paralympic record of 39.36, nearly four seconds faster than her time in the heats.
“I didn’t even know I won when I touched the wall,” an emotional Watson told Channel Seven. “I didn’t even think it was going to happen. I just can’t thank Australia and the world enough for embracing para sport and for embracing me as a person with a disability and believing in me.”
Canoeist Curtis McGrath, who lost his legs while serving in Afghanistan, won his second Paralympics gold in the men's KL2 canoe sprint.
It was, however, a bitter-sweet moment as McGrath had been watching developments unfold in the country where his life was changed forever nine years ago when he inadvertently stepped on an IED.
“It’s a tragic situation. My heart goes out to the people of Afghanistan,” he said.
“I’m really grateful that their athletes got the opportunity to represent Afghanistan,” he added, in reference to Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli.
Port Macquarie’s own Ryley Batt, regarded as one of the best wheelchair rugby players in the world, was one of Australia’s flag bearers at the Opening Ceremony – although he could have so easily never become such a lauded paralympian after he avoided using a wheelchair for the first 12 years of his life.
“A local legend, paralympian Tom Kennedy, ran a wheelchair rugby program at the local PCYC,” Batt said.
“All my able-bodied friends jumped in the wheelchairs and started bashing into each other but I was a bit embarrassed to jump in a wheelchair - at the time I was using a skateboard to get around.
“Weeks went on and I decided to jump in the wheelchair and it was the best thing I've ever done in my life.”
He has since enjoyed a thoroughly successful 20-year career in the sport, his first Paralympic Games coming when he was a mere 15-years-old.
Getting actively involved in the sport also allowed him to overcome his apprehension of the wheelchair and an over-reliance on using his skateboard to get around.
“I overcame my mindset and that ‘kryptonite’ fear of the wheelchair,” he said
“Once I got stuck into wheelchair rugby, I then accepted my disability. It was very hard to overcome, but it was one thing in life that I’m very, very glad I did overcome.”
Australia lost out to hosts Japan 60-52 in the bronze medal match in Tokyo but Batt and his teammates all came away as winners.
Arguably one of the most heart-warming moments came when Australian Stuart Jones, competing in the men’s T-1-2 road race, stopped to encourage a fellow athlete who was struggling in an entirely different race.
South African Toni Mould, who lives with cerebral palsy and was one of the most impaired athletes in her discipline, was a lap behind the rest of the competitors in her field and struggling.
Jones noticed this, slowed down in his race and shouted across, “Keep going. You’re going great guns. You have only got a lap to go.”
“If I could encourage [Toni Mould] up the hill and just make her struggle a little bit easier, hey, what’s a place, if I come sixth, seventh, eighth?” Jones told the Seven Network. “Because that’s what these Paralympics are about.” Jones finished in 8th place.
“That’s what we hope the green and gold does,” three-time Paralympic gold medallist Kurt Fearnley said on Channel Seven. “It doesn’t just look after the green and gold. If you can, you go out there and you show the sportsmanship that we all feel proud of. It was a beautiful moment.”
It was a moment that encapsulated the spirit of the Paralympics by demonstrating true sportsmanship and camaraderie.
All good things must come to an end
As the Games came to an end with a ceremony featuring neon-clad breakdancers, unicycling butterflies and strutting stilt-walkers, Tokyo’s Governor Yuriko Koike handed the Paralympic flag over to International Paralympic Committee chief Andrew Parsons, who passed it on to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, representing the 2024 hosts.
Parsons then announced the end of the Games, bringing the curtain down after 539 gold medals across 22 sports, contested almost entirely behind closed doors because of the virus.
“I don’t want to do this, but the time has come for me to declare the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games closed,” he said.
The entire festival of sport proved to be a huge success and example of human triumph in the face of adversity, be it physical disability or the divisive and disruptive problems that COVID-19 has thrown at the world. Each and every single athlete walked away with a medal of sorts, whether it was made of metal in the colour gold, silver or bronze or merely figuratively. Each and every one was, and is, a true champion.
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