With the drama of the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics consigned to the history books, attention now turns to the Paralympics that open on Tuesday.

Around 4,400 athletes are expected to compete in this global sporting spectacle, with medals up for grabs in 539 events across 22 competitions.

Organizers decided Monday to ban spectators from all Paralympic venues in Tokyo and the prefectures of Chiba, Saitama and Shizuoka due to a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections in the capital and other parts of Japan.

With venues devoid of fans, organizers are now hoping the focus is more likely to be on the athletes and their performances during the Games, something that could actually help raise the overall awareness of disability in the broader community.

Going for gold

“(A Paralympics medal) is a title I have yet to achieve and I’m eager to accomplish it,” says Yui Kamiji, who is seeking to win gold in wheelchair tennis at the Games.

Competing on home turf at the Paralympics will be the cherry on top of what has already been a successful summer for the 27-year-old, following her sixth wheelchair doubles title at Wimbledon in July.

Having started playing wheelchair tennis at the age of 11, Kamiji has long dreamed of becoming a Paralympic champion.

Now the former world No. 1 (she’s currently ranked No. 2 in the world) is looking forward to the “precious” experience of meeting athletes from other countries, even though it has been a difficult time for many.

“I would like to thank all the people who have been trying to make the Tokyo Paralympics happen despite the negative opinion or the troubles they have been facing,” Kamiji says. “As athletes, we have to try our hardest and achieve good results so that, hopefully, our preparation and hard work pay off.”

It has been a tough time for sports all round, but the core values of the Paralympics — courage, strong will, inspiration and fairness — are expected to generate unyielding power and hope, says a representative from the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

However, it’s not the first time the Paralympics have faced a challenge. Indeed, the Games’ very roots lie in efforts to overcome adversity in times of uncertainty.

Paralympic history

The global sports event we now know as the Paralympics originally grew out of the destruction and division of World War II.

In the summer of 1948, German-born English neurosurgeon Sir Ludwig Guttmann (1899-1980) devised a sports competition for injured British servicemen. Guttmann was Jewish and fled Germany for the United Kingdom in 1939 before war broke out. His profession led him to become head of the National Spinal Injuries Center at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where he promoted physical activity as a method of rehabilitation.

The initial contest coincided with the 1948 London Olympics, when 16 disabled patients competed in an archery competition in the grounds of the hospital. Although the event was small in size, Guttman’s games made headlines in the United Kingdom. A few years later, in 1952, the inaugural International Stoke Mandeville Games took place — the first of its kind in the world.

Forty-eight-year-old Ade Adepitan is a bronze medalist for Great Britain in men’s wheelchair basketball and a host for the Channel 4 Paralympic coverage in the United Kingdom. | COURTESY OF ADE ADEPITAN
Forty-eight-year-old Ade Adepitan is a bronze medalist for Great Britain in men’s wheelchair basketball and a host for the Channel 4 Paralympic coverage in the United Kingdom. | COURTESY OF ADE ADEPITAN

The inaugural Summer Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960. Around 400 athletes from 23 countries took part, but it was open only for those using wheelchairs. More than two decades later, Seoul’s 1988 Summer Paralympics marked the first time the Games followed the Olympics, sharing the same host city and venues (although this scheduling was not formalized until 2001).

With these historic struggles for recognition in mind, Tokyo 2020 is a testament to the evolution of the Paralympic movement over the past 60 years.

Defining disability

In order to compete in a Paralympic sport, athletes need to demonstrate an impairment that creates a “competitive disadvantage.” But parasports attempt to create a level playing field so that competitors aren’t disadvantaged or, if that’s impossible, the disadvantage is kept to a minimum.

An athlete’s success in the Paralympics is determined by “skill, fitness, power, endurance, tactical ability and mental focus,” according to the International Olympic Committee.

To judge such prowess fairly, a defined classification structure is needed to determine the eligibility of an athlete to compete in a certain discipline, and groups athletes together depending on factors such as activity limitation in certain sports. The overall aim is to lessen the impact of an impairment on athletic performance.

This system allows athletes with a wide range of impairments — 10 in total — to compete in the Games, opening up competitive sports to those with physical, visual and intellectual impairments.

Australian Susan Seipel is competing in the KL2 and the VL2 paracanoe races at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. The former made its debut at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, where Seipel won bronze. | COURTESY OF SUSAN SEIPEL
Australian Susan Seipel is competing in the KL2 and the VL2 paracanoe races at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. The former made its debut at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, where Seipel won bronze. | COURTESY OF SUSAN SEIPEL

Not every sport is open to everyone, however. Some sports such as goalball, which has been described as a “silent battle,” are intended only for athletes with a visual impairment. Other sports — swimming, for example — are open to all classifications.

“I think it’s going to be a wonderful Games, in a different way,” says Ade Adepitan, 48, a bronze medalist for Great Britain in men’s wheelchair basketball and a host for the Channel 4 Paralympic coverage in the United Kingdom.

Adepitan says he’s looking forward to watching athletes compete at the Paralympics, despite the challenges faced by organizers in hosting the event during a pandemic.

“At the end of the day, it’s sport,” Adepitan says. “I think you’re still going to get amazing stories, and I think it’s going to be even more powerful from the athletes because many of them would have gone through what much of the public have gone through in the pandemic.”

Role models

One of the thousands of athletes traveling to the Games from overseas is Susan Seipel. The Australian remembers being inspired when she watched the 2000 Sydney Paralympics on television.

“I was in awe of seeing people with disabilities like me achieving extraordinary things in sport,” the 35-year-old says. “Representing my country at the Paralympics is a great honor and a dream come true.”

Now preparing for her second Paralympics, Seipel will be taking to the water in paracanoe at the Sea Forest Waterway.

The event is made up of two disability classifications for both men and women, and two different types of boats. Seipel is competing in the KL2 and the VL2 paracanoe races. The former made its debut at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, where Seipel won bronze.

“Paracanoe is a fast and exciting sprint race over a 200-meter flat water course and Tokyo is the first time the outrigger canoe boats will be included in the Paralympic Games,” Seipel says.

As an athlete, she has been spending much of her time preparing for the upcoming Games but admits the uncertainty has been difficult to deal with at times.

It’s this year of doubt and fear, Adepitan says, “a year of not knowing what was going to happen next,” that will spur many athletes to appreciate the Games even more.

Seipel believes it was right to postpone the Games in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

The extra preparation time has helped and, like so many other athletes, Seipel has been able to use this time to prepare for the competition.

Tomoki Sato is one of Japan's medal prospects in the 1,500 meters at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. | KYODO
Tomoki Sato is one of Japan’s medal prospects in the 1,500 meters at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. | KYODO

However, the pandemic also meant that she missed out on numerous global competitions. Seipel says she has missed traveling and representing her country overseas.

Although training hard and trying to win a medal is part of the Games, the Paralympic movement as a whole isn’t solely about elite sports, Seipel says, adding that the event is also about raising awareness of disability, and plays a big part in advancing global human rights.

“It aims to change negative attitudes and perceptions within society toward people living with disabilities,” Seipel says, adding that Paralympic athletes are role models with incredible stories, achieving success while overcoming “stigma, social inequality and even discrimination.”

These role models can go a long way to inspiring people from their home countries. However, representation is not yet universal.

“We need a Paralympic superstar from Africa, we need a Paralympic superstar from Asia, we need one from South America,” Adepitan says. “I want the Paralympics to be truly representative, especially for female sports.”

Ability, not disability

Past Paralympic Games have successfully been able to drive the conversation surrounding disability forward and create lasting societal change. The 2012 London Games were described as “the greatest Paralympic Games ever” by International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven. Lord Sebastian Coe, then-president of the 2012 London Organising Committee, said at the time that British people would never think of disability in the same way again.

Adepitan, who was an ambassador for the London Olympic and Paralympic bid, calls the 2012 event a “game-changer.”

“If the Games hadn’t gone to London, maybe the Paralympics would be where it is today, but I don’t think it would have been,” he says.

The London Paralympics were the first time the Games were billed as a “high performance sporting event” — all Olympic sponsors signed up as Paralympic sponsors and para-athletes were endorsed for their strength and abilities, adorning big billboards and spearheading award-winning advertising campaigns. Two-thirds of the U.K. population tuned in to watch the competition, and that visibility made a difference.

“It took the profile to another level,” Adepitan says. “It put us on par, maybe not financially, but definitely in much of the public eye, with the Olympic athletes. As someone with a disability who has competed in disability sport pretty much all of my life, that’s all we’ve ever wanted.”

Atsushi Yamamoto, a member of Japan's men's track and field team, competes in the long jump at a competition in Aichi Prefecture in June. | KYODO
Atsushi Yamamoto, a member of Japan’s men’s track and field team, competes in the long jump at a competition in Aichi Prefecture in June. | KYODO

Attitudes are also changing. Eighty-one percent of British adults believed that the Paralympics had a positive impact on the way people with an impairment are viewed by the public.

Although the pandemic has hampered current efforts, Kamiji believes that the Tokyo Paralympics have the potential to carry on from the success of the London Games.

“I believe the Tokyo Paralympics can create an opportunity to promote parasports, not only in Japan but to the world,” she says.

Barriers in everyday life remain an issue for many who live with a disability. Japan, like the rest of the world, still has a long way to go for stigma to be broken down and outdated stereotypes to be challenged.

Kamiji has noticed more and more people interested in parasports in recent years in Japan, and a rise in spectator numbers. Things do seem to be changing for the better.

For the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, holding the Paralympics is the chance to work toward the realization of a “symbiotic society,” having held discussions with a wide range of parties from stakeholders and the government to public transport companies, manufacturers and hotels.

“Until now, people from such diverse industries have never considered creating an accessible environment in their respective positions, and children across the country have never received Paralympic education,” says a representative from the organizing committee. “This is the concrete change that the Paralympics bring. The Paralympics show the way to a symbiotic society that can be realized in the near future.”

High hopes

Medals are yet to be won in Tokyo, but the long-term goal for the Paralympic movement has already been spelled out. The Paralympic Committee wants to move the focus away from the things that can’t be achieved to focus on the things that can.

“I hope that the Paralympic movement continues to grow and gain the global respect it deserves, equal to that of the Olympic Games,” Seipel says. “I hope it continues to inspire the next generation and helps improve the lives of people with disabilities by creating an accessible and inclusive future.”

For Adepitan, it’s also about providing inspiration for future generations.

“In terms of the perception, I think (the Games) may open up the floodgates for young kids, young disabled kids, many of them when they grow up, they think, ‘I want to be a Paralympian. I know what I want,’” he says. “I never had that when I was younger. I didn’t have that to look up to.”

Having witnessed its most successful Olympic medal haul, Japan’s efforts at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics is an opportunity for the nation to revel in the abilities of its Paralympic athletes.

“Japan has a strong Paralympic team,” says Adepitan.

It’s an opportunity that Kamiji also hopes to draw inspiration from.

“I hope the Paralympics will be seen in the same way as the Olympics,” Kamiji says. “I also hope more people in future will dream of competing in the Paralympics.”

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