The head of the International Paralympic Committee says he’s satisfied with the precautions being taken to protect athletes competing in the Tokyo Games, as concerns mount over whether the event can be held safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We would not be organizing the games if we believed they could cause a big spread of the virus,” Andrew Parsons, chief of the group, said in an interview. “I’m confident with the level of protection.”
This comes as doubts remain over the slow pace of vaccinations in Japan and its struggle to keep infections under control before the arrival of tens of thousands of people into crowded Olympic venues — all of which apply equally to the Paralympic games. The U.S. State Department’s recent warning to Americans not to travel to Japan has intensified speculation over a potential cancellation. Polls in Japan consistently show that a majority of Japanese oppose the games. Business leaders, as well as the influential Asahi newspaper, have called for the event to be scrapped as well.
Scheduled to start Aug. 24, the Paralympic games will involve 22 sports, including two new categories, badminton and taekwondo. About 4,400 athletes and 19,000 staff and press are scheduled to arrive in Tokyo for the event, compared with a total of about 60,000 for the Olympics. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Friday, however, that he’s seeking to reduce the number of visitors. No spectators from overseas will be allowed, and it’s still unclear whether domestic fans will be reduced or cut to zero.
So far, though, Parsons is working under the assumption that the games will go ahead. Asked whether the pandemic situation poses any greater risks for Paralympic athletes, he said that there’s no research or studies showing any greater risk that they will contract the pathogen.
“The level of protection that we offer to Paralympic athletes is the same that we are offering able-bodied Olympic athletes,” he said. The playbooks, which lay out the protocols for athletes, delegates, volunteers and press, also apply for their competition matches, he said.
What’s different, Parsons said, is the treatment of a Paralympic athlete in case of an infection. Depending on their level of disability, different medical procedures may be be necessary. In most instances, these preparations can be made in advance, he said.
One issue that the Paralympics organization is seeking to highlight, with the games being held in Tokyo, is this: while there’s been progress in making the city’s public facilities more accessible for people with disabilities, that hasn’t been matched on a social level. For example, while 92% of transportation in the metropolis is now free of barriers in the form of steps, employment has remained near 2% over the past few years.
“You don’t see people with disabilities moving around, they’re kept at home,” Parsons said. “That comes from overprotection, and we want that to change.”
Athletes with disabilities have already surmounted plenty of challenges to compete in the Paralympics this summer, and the coronavirus pandemic is in many ways just an extension of that, the Paralympics chief said.
“The whole point is to overcome challenges, and the pandemic just becomes one of those,” Parsons said of the Paralympic athletes. “Whenever you ask them about the changes in the world that we’re living in, what impact does the pandemic have and whether you want to compete, almost 100% of the time, the answer is ‘yes.’”
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