As the final rounds of closing ceremony fireworks brighten the dim and drizzled Japanese night sky, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games came to an end.
Having been held behind closed doors due to Covid restrictions, these parallel Games have undoubtedly been one of the most memorable for the millions of viewers who have tuned in around the world.
Countless records have tumbled and the human stories have shone through the sometimes murky weather to both move and inspire.
A record number of athletes and teams have competed in Tokyo, a testament to the legacy of the Paralympics and the pioneering para-athletes who can all return to their homes knowing they have inspired millions to question what they perceive to be their own limitations. With the next Games only three years away, it is likely we will see many familiar faces in Paris.
There has been no shortage of phenomenal moments in Tokyo over the past two weeks. We have whittled the many down to just a few that will last long in our memory.
Despite fears they would not be able to travel, Afghanistan athletes, Zakia Khudadadai and Hossain Rasouli, arrived in Tokyo just in time to compete in the Paralympics. After the Taliban took over the country, fears arose regarding the safety and the future of Afghanistan's para-athletes, especially after Khudadadi had released a video plea saying that she was unable to leave her house.
Nevertheless, they made it to the Games to represent their nation. Khudadadi competed on Thursday in the women’s k44 - 49kg Taekwondo tournament and finished ninth, while Rasouli's presence in the T47 long jump final inspired the other contenders.
Favourite Gold medal performance
There just aren’t sufficient words to explain the long list of epic achievements of Sarah Storey. The Team GB star won her 15th, 16th and 17th gold medals in Tokyo to become Britain’s most decorated Paralympian. “I'm a bit overwhelmed, it feels like it's happening to someone else,” Storey said.
It wasn’t all plain sailing as Storey was trailing by 75 seconds at one stage of the C4-5 road race but found the fire to pull it back and claim her record-breaking 17th gold medal. Cycling is Storey’s second Paralympic sport; her epic legacy began when she picked up a sizeable collection of medals in the pool between Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004, before switching to two wheels in Beijing.
Malaysian para-athlete Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli appeared to have won gold in the shot put in the men’s F20 class, however he was stripped of his medal because he had shown up three minutes late for the competition.
The decision caused uproar, particularly online with blame being aimed at the Ukrainian team whose silver and bronze were upgraded. Zolkefi had claimed he had not heard the announcement. A statement from World Para Athletics, which governs track and field for Para sports, said a referee had determined that “there was no justifiable reason for the athletes’ failure to report” on time. It said an appeal was also turned down.
Moving human stories
One thing the Paralympics always brings is a plethora of remarkable human stories, of athletes who overcome adversity to reach their goals, and these Games were no exception.
We spoke to Palestine’s sole Paralympian, Husam Azzam, who despite immeasurable pain and sacrifice travelled to Tokyo to deliver a message of awareness of the healthcare afforded to children in his home of Gaza, as his son lay fighting for his life in a hospital bed.
Also check out the incredible story of Arz Zahreddine, Lebanon’s only Paralympic representative, who was competing for the victims and survivors of the Beirut port explosion.
Surprise of the Games
Lisbeli Vera Andrade of Venezuela came out of nowhere to dominate the women’s T47 sprint events. The shy 19-year-old from Maracaibo picked up gold in the 100m and 200m, and silver in the 400m to make one of the most impressive hauls in athletics at the games, but yet no one had seen it coming.
Her 100m win came down to a photo finish, pipping Brittni Mason, the favourite from the US, by 0.001 seconds. “When I crossed the finish line I didn't realise I'd won and I didn’t know how to express my feelings in the moment,” said Andrade, who had folded and cried on the rain soaked track in the National Stadium after the announcement of her 100m win.
In interviews following her wins, Andrade, who has one arm, has been vocal about the bullying she experienced when she was younger. With her two golds and a silver in Tokyo, we’re likely to see a lot more silver-wear before the 19-year-old gets the final ‘last laugh’.