Tokyo Paralympics: A ‘different’ Games but Paralympians still hope to shine

The Agitos symbol in Tokyo
The Agitos symbol takes its place on the water in Tokyo before the start of the Games
Venue: Tokyo, Japan Dates: 24 August-5 September Time in Tokyo: BST +8
Coverage: Follow on Radio 5 Live and on the BBC Sport website

The Tokyo Paralympics get under way on Tuesday, with Covid-19 cases rising in Japan and all parties acknowledging that there is still a challenge ahead.

Delayed by a year because of the pandemic and with supporters unable to attend apart from a small number of schoolchildren, these will be a different Games to any previous edition.

But not only do organisers want top-level competition, they also want the Games to play a big part in making Japanese society more inclusive.

Tokyo is the first city to stage two Paralympic Games, having hosted the 1964 edition when 375 athletes from 21 nations took part in nine sports.

This time, around 4,400 athletes from 162 national Paralympic committees will compete in 539 medal events across 22 sports.

All will be eager to put the turbulent events of the past 18 months behind them and show the rest of the world what they can do as Paralympians on the biggest stage of all.

It will officially start with the opening ceremony at 12:00 BST on Tuesday and competition begins on Wednesday.

How did we get here?

After the Rio Paralympics, which needed major late budget cuts in order to go ahead, hopes were high that the Tokyo Games would bring the Paralympic movement back to a position of strength after the highs of London 2012.

Tokyo looked like the perfect partner, with a strong bond between the Olympic and Paralympic staging and unprecedented demand for tickets.

The original ‘one year to go’ festivities in 2019 featured successful mass participation events and showed a hunger among the Japanese public to get behind the Games.

But the coronavirus pandemic ripped up all of the plans, with a year’s delay and then a host of protocols affecting all concerned, as with the Olympics.

Athletes across the world faced challenges to their training and competition programmes, with some required to shield for medical reasons.

Staging the Games

The Paralympic mascot Someity at a school in 2019
The Paralympic mascot Someity visits a school in Japan in 2019

A state of emergency remains in place in Tokyo, with Covid-19 case numbers continuing to rise in the city and surrounds.

Within the Paralympic bubble, as with the Olympics, strict protocols are in place including daily testing for athletes, mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing.

In addition, equipment such as wheelchairs must be regularly sanitised.

“I’m confident it will be a safe Games – but a safe Games doesn’t mean zero cases,” International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons told BBC Sport.

“We will have cases. But how we then control and react to the positive cases, and not let them spread the virus, will define whether we are successful or not.

“I understand the frustration and the anger among the Japanese about the pandemic, but there is no correlation between it and the presence of the Olympics here and I’m sure it is going to be the same with the Paralympics.

“There are other reasons for the rise in the number of cases.”

Coronavirus travel restrictions have had an impact on the Games, with athletes from Pacific Island nations Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga and Vanuatu unable to travel.

The news of their absence came days after Afghanistan’s two Paralympic athletes were forced to withdraw from the Games because of the situation in the country since the collapse of the government and the return of the Taliban. However, as a mark of solidarity, the country’s flag will be carried at the opening ceremony by a representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In addition, a six-strong Refugee team will take part in the Games, including Afghan swimmer Abbas Karimi and the team’s first female member, club thrower Alia Issa.

Members of the NZ wheelchair rugby team arrive on court
Members of the New Zealand wheelchair rugby team arrive on court for a practice match

What’s new?

For the Tokyo programme, gone are Para-sailing and football seven-a-side and in come Para-badminton and Para-taekwondo, which will have 14 and six medal events respectively.

Four sports – Para-canoe, Para-shooting, Para-table tennis and wheelchair fencing – have more medal events than Rio.

However, the two biggest sports in terms of athlete numbers and medals – Para-athletics and Para-swimming – have fewer events than five years ago.

Both sports have introduced new mixed relay events – the universal relay in athletics features a visually impaired runner on the first leg, an amputee runner on the second, an athlete with cerebral palsy or co-ordination impairment on the third leg and a wheelchair racer on the last leg.

Swimming has added a 4x100m relay for S14 (learning disability) competitors.

What about the Great Britain team?

The GB team for Tokyo features 227 competitors – a figure that includes pilots and guides for visually impaired competitors plus competition partners – and they will take part in 19 of the 22 sports.

ParalympicsGB promised that the team would be the best prepared for a Games and they have worked hard to make sure that no stone has been left unturned, amid the many difficulties.

With 100 female athletes selected, the GB team will be the closest to gender parity it has ever been at a Summer Paralympics – 44% of the team are women, compared with 40% at the Rio Games.

The team is packed with experience with 144 returning Paralympians and 43 Paralympic champions.

In Rio, GB athletes won 147 medals, including 64 golds, across 15 sports – their best haul since 1988 – and were second to China in the overall medal table.

As with their Olympic counterparts, the Paralympic team have been given a medal range rather than a target by UK Sport, with theirs 100-140.

Who are the GB athletes to watch?

Sarah Storey has a chance to become Britain’s most successful Paralympian at her eighth Paralympics. She comes to Tokyo with 14 golds across her career in swimming and cycling, and three more golds will see her overtake Mike Kenny’s record of 16, which has stood since 1988.

Storey, 43, could also become Great Britain’s first gold medallist in Tokyo when she defends her C5 individual pursuit crown on Wednesday before she goes in two road races later in the programme.

Para-cyclist Sarah Storey
Storey will be defending the three titles she won in Rio

She is part of a strong GB cycling squad with a host of medal chances both on the track and the road, through seven-time Paralympian Jody Cundy, Jaco van Gass, who was injured serving with the Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan and has competed at the Invictus Games, and tandem pairs Lora Fachie and Corrine Hall and Neil Fachie and Matt Rotherham.

Having created history in Rio by becoming the first GB athlete to win gold medals in two sports at the same Games since 1988, Kadeena Cox will bid to retain her titles in cycling and athletics.

She is joined in the dual sports club by triathlete George Peasgood, who will also compete in the road cycling events.

Lee Pearson will aim to add to his 11 golds in the equestrian arena, along with fellow multi-medallists Natasha Baker and Sophie Wells.

On the athletics track, Hannah Cockroft, Aled Davies, Libby Clegg, Richard Whitehead and Hollie Arnold will all be aiming to retain their Paralympic titles.

Debutants including 400m runner Columba Blango and javelin thrower Dan Pembroke will hope to make their mark, while London 2012 four-gold hero David Weir is back after a disappointing Rio Games.

In the pool, Ellie Simmonds is back for her fourth Games but faces a big challenge from team-mate Maisie Summers-Newton, and Bethany Firth will be keen to overcome a shoulder injury and retain the three titles she won in Rio.

What about the global stars?

From German ‘Blade jumper’ Markus Rehm to American wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden, Brazilian swimmer Daniel Dias to wheelchair tennis home favourites Shingo Kunieda and Yui Kamiji, there will be some strong competitors on show.

Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka will be aiming for her fifth title in a row, weeks after competing at the Olympic Games for the fourth time.

Italian wheelchair fencer Bebe Vio, who contracted meningitis aged 11 and had both of her forearms amputated as well as both her legs at the knee, will hope to shine in her sport, while it will be a memorable debut for 14-year-old Ugandan swimmer Husnah Kukundakwe.

And at the other end of the age spectrum, a trio of equestrian riders, Germany’s Heidemarie Dresing (66) Ireland’s Rosemary Gaffney (63) and Norway’s Jens Lasse Dokken (60), will be hoping to show that age is no barrier to Paralympic success.

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