After a dramatic evacuation from Taliban-held Kabul and a secret operation to fly him to Tokyo, Afghan Paralympian Hossain Rasouli beat the odds on Tuesday to compete in the long jump.
It was not the event he had been expecting to contest, after qualifying for the T47 100 meters, but then just about everything in his world was turned upside down with the insurgents’ capture of his homeland.
After the militant group overran the capital, he and fellow Afghan Paralympian Zakia Khudadadi found themselves trapped, with no way to get to Tokyo.
At first, it seemed their Paralympic dream was over. A Tokyo 2020 volunteer symbolically carried the Afghan flag during the Games opening ceremony, with no athletes on the ground to take part.
Over the weekend though, officials revealed the Afghan pair had been successfully flown out of the country.
After a stop in Dubai, they were taken to Paris and spent a week at the French sports ministry’s high-performance training center before flying to Tokyo, where they arrived on Saturday evening.
The pair are being kept away from the media, with the International Paralympic Committee saying the athletes needed space to focus on their sport.
But IPC spokesman Craig Spence said Tuesday that Rasouli was “super excited to be competing today.”
The Afghan emerged from the athletes’ entrance on Tuesday with a wave to team officials dotted around the mostly empty Olympic Stadium.
Rasouli, whose left hand was amputated as the result of a mine explosion, then proudly pointed toward the Afghanistan Paralympic Committee logo on his vest.
The 26-year-old finished last, reflecting his comparative inexperience in the discipline — it was his first time taking part in long jump in a major competition.
Still, Spence said, “it was great to see him” on what was “a very special occasion.”
Khudadadi will compete in taekwondo on Thursday.
Elsewhere, there was joy for British cycling great Sarah Storey, who won the C5 road time trial at Fuji International Speedway to equal swimmer Mike Kenny’s all-time British Paralympic Games record of 16 gold medals.
“I’ve been preparing for this race for such a long time. The time trial is probably one of my favorite events,” she said. “It’s the ‘race of truth.’ It’s you against the clock, and trying to pick off your competitors as you see them.”
Storey, who was born without a functioning left arm, has broken 76 world records and shows no sign of slowing down.
The 43-year-old competes next in Thursday’s road race, where she will have the chance to break Kenny’s record, though she said she was not making any assumptions.
“Road races are so unpredictable,” Storey said. “So Thursday morning I’ll come out and try to have some fun and see which way the cookie crumbles.”
There was also joy for Cuba’s “queen of speed” Omara Durand Elias, who took her sixth Paralympic gold in the T12 400 meters.
The 29-year-old, who is visually impaired and runs with a guide, said there was no magic recipe to her track dominance.
“My secret is sacrifice for training and good coaching. That is all,” said the Cuban, who will compete in the 100-meter finals tomorrow and is also aiming to make Saturday’s 200-meter final.
On a day with 61 golds up for grabs across five sports, there was bitter disappointment for U.S. “armless archer” Matt Stutzman, who is one of the world’s most recognizable Paralympians.
He missed out on a medal in the men’s compound open class on Tuesday when he fell in the last 16, with a performance that was far below his best.
“I felt like crap. That’s the polite way to say it,” he admitted afterward. “That was one of my worst scores I’ve shot in probably five years.”
But the 2015 world champion said he was down but not out.
“I’m going to be back in Paris (2024) and my ultimate goal is to represent the United States in LA (2028),” he said. “That will be my last Games.”
The home nation had another tough day at the office on Tuesday, although it managed to add one more gold to its growing tally.
At 50 years of age, cyclist Keiko Sugiura became Japan’s oldest ever Paralympic gold medalist, winning the women’s C1-3 road time trial at Fuji Speedway.
A keen amateur before she suffered a crush fracture to her skull in a 2016 cycling crash, Sugiura quickly became a force in her chosen parasport, winning world championship medals not long after her accident.
She won her first Paralympic gold with a 25-minute, 55.76-second blast around the motor racing track at the foot of Mount Fuji. Her nearest competitor, Sweden’s Anna Beck, finished the 16-kilometer event 22.27 seconds slower.
“I managed to race while keeping myself focused,” said Sugiura. “My pace dipped (in the latter half of the race) and I thought I might not make it (to the line fastest).”
Also in the morning, visually impaired runner Shinya Wada won his second medal of the Games, crossing the line second in the men’s T11 1,500-meter race.
“I left everything on the track,” he said, while explaining that at 44 years of age this could be his last Paralympics.
He crossed the finish line at the National Stadium in 4:05.27, well behind Brazilian Yeltsin Jacques, the runner who won the T11 5,000 meters ahead of bronze medalist Wada on Friday.
Wada has one more event remaining, the men’s T12 marathon, in which he has a shot at completing a full set of Tokyo Games medals.
Japan is guaranteed at least a boccia silver medal after Hidetaka Sugimura won into the BC2 class individual final where he will take on Watcharaphon Vongsa of Thailand.
Sugimura topped his pool after going unbeaten in three games, then won his quarterfinal 8-1 over Slovakia’s Robert Mezik on Tuesday morning. The athlete with cerebral palsy then backed up later in the day to knock out Brazilian Maciel Santos 3-2 in the semifinal.
Vongsa will be far from a pushover, though, as he comes into the game looking to defend his title won in 2016 and with an eye on a fourth career Paralympic gold.
Japan had a disappointing day at wheelchair tennis.
Quad singles player Koji Sugeno was knocked out of his semifinal by Sam Schroder of the Netherlands 6-2, 6-3, and Momoko Ohtani was also sent packing by a Dutch player in her WT class semifinal, losing 6-3, 6-2 to Diede de Groot.
In the men’s doubles semifinal, third-seed pair Shingo Kunieda and Takashi Sanada were comprehensively beaten by top seeds Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid of Britain 6-2, 6-1.
The only bright spot on the day for Japan came from Yui Kamiji when she beat China’s Zhu Zhenzhen 7-5, 6-1 to reach the WT singles semifinal.
Kamiji will have to overcome Dutchwoman Aniek van Koot to win a place in the final.
“Before coming into today’s match, there was a part of me that thought I can’t lose before facing (van Koot). So I’m glad that I was able to win,” said Kamiji.
Having lost in the singles semifinals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and the quarterfinals in London in 2012, she says she is entering “unknown territory.”
“Now that I came this far, I want to be aggressive with a mindset to win. I want to do my best so I can play more,” she said.
Japan suffered defeats to China in both goalball, 7-4 in the men’s quarterfinal, and in five-a-side soccer, 2-0.
The soccer result means Japan are relegated to the fifth-sixth playoff, with China advancing to the semifinals in their place. The goalballers’ Tokyo Games are over.
At the end of the night, Japan’s women’s wheelchair basketball team had an embarrassing end to their Paralympic Games, handed a 82-24 humbling by the Netherlands in the teams’ quarterfinal matchup.
The Dutch women built a 22 point lead by the end of the first quarter, extended it to 34 at halftime, 46 at the end of the third and did not let up, running out 58-point winners.
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