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The Tokyo Paralympics came to an end with an upbeat closing ceremony on Sunday that pulled down the curtain on Games that were unlike any other.

“In 12 magical days, athletes gave the world happiness, confidence and hope,” International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons said during the closing ceremony.

Parsons sat with Crown Prince Akishino for much of the ceremony, which was also attended by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, and later declared the Games officially closed.

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto praised the athletes who competed under the various rules and measures put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“We were overwhelmed by your astonishing performances,” Hashimoto said.

The Tokyo Paralympics, staged in the middle of a pandemic and with the host city under a state of emergency, completed 12 days of competition with no major disruptions due to the virus, despite beginning as the number of new cases was on the rise in Tokyo.

“Very few countries in the world, if any, could have done what Japan did here,” Parsons said earlier Sunday. “To deliver these Games in a pandemic situation is something that the Paralympic movement will never forget.”

The final medals were awarded earlier Sunday before the athletes gathered at National Stadium for their Paralympic sendoff. Japan produced a final flourish, adding three gold medals to take the nation’s total for the Paralympics to 13 after being shut out at the Rio Games five years ago. Japan finished with 51 medals overall.

The athletes were in high spirits before the closing ceremony, clapping and doing the wave as they sat in the middle of the stadium.

The various performances during the ceremony were meant to convey the idea of a “new diversity,” where people around the world can come together and celebrate each other’s differences.

“During our carnival of sport, we have celebrated difference, exhibited the best of humanity, and shown unity in diversity,” Parsons said. “Our journey cannot end here.

“Tonight, see this not as a closing ceremony, but an opening to a bright and inclusive future.”

There was a youthful vibe to the night. The opening portion of the festivities featured dancers and performers on rollerblades and BMX bikes accompanied by flashing lights and electronic music being pumped out of the speakers.

Artists perform during the Tokyo Paralympic closing ceremony on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
Artists perform during the Tokyo Paralympic closing ceremony on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

The club-like atmosphere continued as the athletes, including Afghans Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli, carried the flags of the participating nations into the stadium.

Making it to the closing ceremony likely allowed organizers to breathe a sigh of relief.

The leadup to the 2020 Games was dominated by questions about whether the Olympics and Paralympics could be staged safely during a pandemic and if they should be held at all. Neither completed its run without COVID-19 infections. There were over 200 cases connected to the Paralympics from Aug. 12 through 11 a.m. on Sunday, according to information released by organizers. On Thursday, the organizing committee said a foreign athlete had been hospitalized after contracting the virus.

The Games forged ahead despite the COVID-19 fears, and Parsons on Sunday hailed the Paralympics as a success.

“It was not easy, as you can imagine,” Parsons said. “When the Games were postponed last year, to think how these Games were going to be delivered, if they were going to be delivered … of course there were many moments where we (asked) ourselves, ‘Is this the right thing to do? Can we actually do it?’

“The answer was always yes, thinking mainly about the athletes, thinking about giving a voice to the athletes and giving a voice to 1.2 billion persons with disabilities.”

Paris will host the next edition in 2024. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo was on hand to receive the Paralympic flag during the closing ceremony. That was followed by scenes from a plaza in Paris where a performer with a prosthetic leg entertained a cheering crowd.

The Tokyo Paralympics featured 163 delegations, one shy of the record set at the London Games in 2012. Afghanistan was part of that group after its two Paralympians — taekwondo athlete Khudadadi and track athlete Rasouli — were evacuated from Kabul in a secret, multinational undertaking. Their country has been in turmoil since the Taliban seized control of the government.

Afghan athletes Hossain Rasouli (left) and Zakia Khudadadi carry their nation's flag into the stadium during the closing ceremony. | REUTERS
Afghan athletes Hossain Rasouli (left) and Zakia Khudadadi carry their nation’s flag into the stadium during the closing ceremony. | REUTERS

The pair were first flown to Paris and, once the IPC confirmed they wished to compete, boarded a flight to Tokyo several days later. Both were able to compete at the 2020 Games. They have been granted humanitarian visas by Australia, according to reports Wednesday.

Like the Olympics, which ran from July 23 to Aug. 8, the Paralympics mostly took place behind closed doors, with teammates, officials and Games volunteers in the stands. There were, however, some spectators, as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and neighboring Chiba Prefecture went ahead with a controversial plan to allow schoolchildren to attend some events.

The Games were delayed by a year due to COVID-19, but were worth the wait for Japan on the field of play. The country reached double digits in gold medals for the first time since the 2004 Athens Games and finished 11th on the medal table.

Shingo Kunieda celebrates after winning gold in the men's wheelchair tennis final on Saturday at Ariake Tennis Park. | AFP-JIJI
Shingo Kunieda celebrates after winning gold in the men’s wheelchair tennis final on Saturday at Ariake Tennis Park. | AFP-JIJI

Fifty-year-old cyclist Keiko Sugiura won two golds, capturing the women’s C1-3 road race and time trial. Wheelchair racer Tomoki Sato also collected a pair with victories in the men’s T52 400 and 1,500 meters.

Wheelchair tennis player Shingo Kunieda, captain of the Japanese delegation and seen as the nation’s strongest gold medal hope before the Games, lived up to his top billing with a dominant showing in the men’s singles competition.

“I wanted this outcome more than anyone and I was looking forward to it,” he said after Saturday’s final. “But to say that I thought I was going to win gold would be false. I still can’t believe that I won gold.”

Kunieda praised Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto, who presented the medals after the men’s singles competition, for her leadership during a time when many in the public were loudly voicing their opposition to staging the Games.

“Leading up to the Games, President Hashimoto became a barrier to protect the athletes,” he said.

China led all nations with 96 gold medals and 207 overall.

While Japan’s performance on the field was a tangible success, it will take much longer to gauge the impact the Paralympics had on Japanese society’s understanding of those with disabilities.

“By watching the Paralympic Games I think people’s perception of those with disabilities has changed,” Mami Tani, who competed in the women’s PTS5 triathlon, said Friday. “They see the fun the athletes are having, how energetic they are and how brilliant they are.

“What matters is what happens from here. More and more companies are employing disabled people. It is going to increase in the future. It’s all about a diverse group of people coming together and working together in harmony. It’s not about rules.

“I go to work and nobody treats me differently.”

Table tennis player Koyo Iwabuchi carries the Japanese flag during the closing ceremony. | REUTERS
Table tennis player Koyo Iwabuchi carries the Japanese flag during the closing ceremony. | REUTERS

Parsons said Japan’s athletic triumphs during the Paralympics will help change attitudes.

“I don’t have any doubt that the performance of the Japanese athletes, and how the country is proud of these athletes, but also proud of being able to deliver these Games, that the changing attitude will be ongoing,” he said. “And the future generation of Japanese people will have a more inclusive attitude than the previous generations.”

Parsons also called attention to the IPC’s WeThe15 movement — named for the percentage of people with disabilities around the world — during the closing ceremony, and Great Britain’s Prince Harry appeared during a video that was played to promote the initiative.

“We must see beyond the athletes that have performed so well here and see the 1.2 billion persons with disabilities,” Parsons said during the ceremony. “They can, and they want, to be active citizens in an inclusive world. This was Sir Ludwig Gutmann’s, our founder’s, wish.

“As a wise athlete said so perfectly this week: ‘people with disabilities should not have to do exceptional things to be accepted.’”

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