Tokyo Paralympics – The Games the world needs

By Mary Pianta, 2 September 2021
Image: Alexandr Zadiraka/


The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have been launched against a backdrop of civil resistance in a nation gripped by a state of emergency. Many people were almost certain that events would be cancelled, while some thought the Games would be scrapped altogether.

For us in Australia, where so many are confined to their homes as governments try to curb COVID-19 outbreaks, the Paralympic Games will continue to be an outlet – the Games the world needed. Residents of Tokyo have been flooding on to the streets, ignoring the Government’s anti-COVID-19 entreaties – trying to soak up a bit of the atmosphere. Japan’s excellent showing at the Olympic Games has stirred their patriotic pride. The state of emergency for Tokyo has been extended to the end of this month, affecting the Paralympic Games in a similar manner.

The second largest Australian team in history competed at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 33 sports between 23 July and 8 August. Great results have come in regular events and the debut events, and we have all enjoyed sharing in those emotional moments when athletes achieved their dreams. But, that was not the end!

The Paralympic Games will open on 24 August and finish 5 September. Despite no fans or officials from Australia to support them, the athletes who live with a disability are still excited about being in Tokyo for the Paralympic Games.

“Paralympic” is derived from the Greek “para” (beside) and Olympic, meaning that the Paralympics are parallel games to the Olympics and illustrates how the two movements exist, side by side.

There are six broad Paralympics’ categories: amputee, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, wheelchair, vision impairment and ‘others’. Within these categories, classification is a unique cornerstone of the Paralympic Movement and performs two critical functions. It determines which Para-athletes are eligible to compete in a sport; it groups athletes into sport classes that aim to ensure that the impact of impairment is minimised, and sporting excellence determines which athlete or team is ultimately victorious.

The Paralympics in Beijing 2008 acted as a trigger to build more accessible infrastructure across China. Elevators and ramps were installed in the Great Wall of China, while accessibility was improved in the Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace. Beyond these economic and physical benefits, the inspiration of the next generation of athletes has meant that China has been the country with the most gold medals at each Paralympic Games since then.

When Tokyo won the chance to host the 2020 Paralympic Games, the city faced a major overhaul to provide better disability access. The city’s confined streets, doorways and buildings have been given overdue essential upgrades in direct response to the needs of residents, athletes and visitors who are vision impaired, wheelchair users or have other mobility challenges. Utility poles were dismantled to widen roads, then replaced with underground power lines. Japan has yet to win a gold medal at the Paralympic Games, so some of their Games’ budget will have gone to training athletes. We can watch their success this week.

The Tokyo weather has already proved problematic for athletes, with 30+ temperatures and intense humidity making life uncomfortable. After training or competing, athletes have been quick to jump into ice vests or ice baths, using hoses or mist sprays to reduce the effects of the scorching conditions. The world’s best athletes were not prevented from clocking up a world record or a personal-best time. Our Paralympians will now be acclimatising in Tokyo to prepare for their events. Let us hope they have learned from the earlier Games that their biggest opponent at these Games might be the heat. How much it effects an athlete depends on the sport, the intensity and duration; a sprinter will not be troubled as much as long distance runners and cyclists.

The Paralympic Officials have warned athletes to follow the COVID rules; to stay 1.5m apart, with no handshakes, high-fives, hugs or cheering. The only concession for masks is that they can be removed for 30 seconds for photos while athletes are on the podium.

In the athletes’ village, the Aussies can watch TV to follow and support other members of the team. They all make their way to the huge food hall where many international cuisines are on offer. Athletes line up to drop off and collect their laundry. They also have access to a private gym in the basement. Our Paralympians will experience this way of life in the village as they prepare for Tokyo glory.

All athletes have had to overcome a severely disrupted lead in to the Games, but the year of the pandemic has presented many special challenges, and people with disabilities have been among the hardest hit. Great stories are coming out, showing the sacrifices and dedication of the athletes as they trained remotely.

Three weeks ago, we saw Brendan Smith achieve his dream of a medal in the 400m individual medley event. He explained that much of his training had been done in the family pool in the backyard. Now we have Col Pearse (17), from Bamawm Extension near Echuca, also dreaming of a medal in the 100m butterfly after training in the dam on the family property. He set up lane ropes, flags and turning walls at each end. Col’s right foot was amputated as a toddler following a lawnmower accident. At 14, he chose Melbourne for his studies and training, but COVID sent him back to milking cows, the gym in the garage and training in the dam.

Getting teams and squads together for training has been difficult; sometimes not happening until the athletes had arrived at the training camps in Tokyo. It is the same situation for our Paralympians who have had to persist in their training and take on the extra challenges of remote training. Amid a year of uncertainties, I’m sure there were times when they felt like giving up. With the postponement of world sporting events, many athletes were left without a purpose until the rescheduling of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games gave them a goal.

Australian shooting Para-sport athlete, Libby Kosmala, at 74 was the oldest Paralympian in Rio. Now retired, Kosmala competed across 12 Paralympic Games, 1972-2016, winning 13 medals, nine gold and three silver, and a bronze in swimming. Libby’s story shows how committed our athletes can be to sport in their lives.

Louise Sauvage was born with spina bifida and needed 21 operations before she was ten years old. She is very stubborn and determined, so was frustrated whenever she was told that she couldn’t do something. Louise has been a key player in bringing disabled sport into the main arena and paving the way for future generations of athletes. At four Paralympic Games, as a wheelchair racer she broke world records and won many medals. In Tokyo, Louise will be one of the coaches for the Australian Athletics Team.

Athletes who had already qualified for the 2020 Games remained qualified. Around 4,400 athletes from 160 nations will compete in 539 medal events in 22 sports at 21 venues. Changes have been made to the program since Rio; badminton and taekwondo are new sports; the number of medal events has increased in some sports but athletics and swimming have less events.

To increase opportunities for athletes with high support needs, the sport of boccia (not in the Olympics) has been allocated 116 athlete slots. Boccia’s roots date back to Ancient Greece, where players threw stones at a stone target. In Tokyo, the court is 12.5m x 6m and the target white ball is called the ‘jack’. Athletes in wheelchairs will need muscle control and accuracy as they throw leather balls towards the jack while keeping within the lines for a valid throw.

Changes have been made to medals for these Paralympic Games to help those with vision impairments to recognise medals by touch. A series of indentations have been included on the sides for the first time: one for Gold, two for Silver and three for Bronze. Braille letters also spell out “TOKYO 2020” on each medal’s face.

Knowing all the work that goes on in the preparation behind the scenes to make a successful time for all of our athletes helps us to appreciate the presentation of the Paralympic Games. Let us give these amazing Australians our support and keep them in our prayers.

Mary Pianta is the Disability Contact Coordinator in the Diocese of Sandhurst.

This article originally appeared in the Sandpiper e-News from the Diocese of Sandhurst, Victoria. Reproduced with permission


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