The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games is officially open, as the torch was lit during a subdued, yet energised, ceremony. The world’s finest Para athletes have gathered in the Japanese capital to compete on the greatest stage over the next 12 days.
As with the Olympic Games that opened one month ago, the Paralympics will be held under strict regulations and in nearly empty stadiums, as Covid-19 cases continue to rise in and around Tokyo, where a state of national emergency remains in effect.
The stern measures may be preventing spectators from attending, but the same cannot be said for the nearly 4,400 athletes representing 162 countries, making this the largest Paralympic Games in history. All the athletes will be keen to put the last 18 months behind them, having had to wait the extra year to get to Tokyo.
The athletes, some of whom have had to shield themselves during the pandemic for health reasons, have had to overcome disruption in training just to be able to compete, with competitions cancelled worldwide.
Yet, there are almost 12 times the number of Para athletes competing in these Games than 1964, the last time Tokyo hosted it, a testament of how far the event’s legacy has come since its inception. These games will feature 539 medal events across 22 different sports.
Despite the empty seats in the National Stadium, it was a celebratory affair that marked the opening of the 16th Summer Games. Intimate and impressive, the ceremony combined a series of musical ensembles, interpretative dance sequences and light shows that centred around the themes of inclusivity and progression; ‘Moving Forward’ (being the overarching theme) towards a fairer and more just world.
Flags of all nations were paraded through the stadium. Perhaps most notable was the carrying of the Afghan flag by a volunteer, a mark of recognition that two Paralympians were forced to withdraw from the Games due to the political turmoil in Afghanistan.
Three wheelchair paralympians lit the torch. It is the first hydrogen-fuelled Olympic cauldron, a statement as Japan makes clear its intention to aim towards a zero-carbon society. The games are intended also to be carbon neutral.
There were also several references to front-line health-workers, a nod to the sacrifices they have made and continue to make as Japan battles with surging cases.
The success of the Olympics Games – particularly that of the hosts – may have lifted public approval of the games, however, strict protocols will remain in place including daily testing for athletes, mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing.
Over the coming two weeks there are plenty of big names to look out for, as viewers will be spoiled for choice over the plethora of events to follow.
Polish table tennis veteran Natalia Partyka has dominated the sport for 20 years since making her debut at Sydney 2000 aged 11, as the youngest Paralympian in history.
British swimmer Alice Tai will be looking to take home a cabinet full of medals following her category reclassification.
She had set a host of world records in the S8 category, including the 50-metre mark in the backstroke, butterfly and freestyle. Now categorised in S9, she will be still keen for a splash in Tokyo.
The hopes of the host nation will be resting partly at least on the shoulders of Shingo Kuneida. The star wheelchair tennis player has won a record total of 45 Grand Slam titles, including gold medals in Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
There will be 12 para-athletes representing the UAE including multiple medal winners in powerlifter Mohammed Khamis Khalaf and wheelchair racer Mohamed Al Hammadi, along with London 2012 shooting gold medallist Abdulla Sultan Al Aryani.
As well as podium places and record holders, the Paralympics serves up incredible stories, well worth following. Egypt’s table-tennis star Ibrahim Hamadtou is one such example. The bilateral amputee’s incredible playing style has attracted fame the world over.
There have been a few changes in the programme of events from the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Seven-a-side football and para-sailing have been removed from the schedule while badminton and taekwondo have been included.
The next two weeks is going to be jam-packed with events full of astounding athletic feats physically and inspiring stories of resilience and overcoming adversity mentally.
Even though stadiums will remain empty, the achievements of Paralympians are sure to capture the attention and imagination of viewers around the world.