With Japan entering its fourth wave during the global crisis, what can we expect from the postponed Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games?

By Katie Campbell
(article originally featured in the Jun/Jul issue of PosAbility)

Calling the Tokyo 2020 Games one of the most difficult Games in the competition’s modern history would be a fair, if not painful assessment to make; no sports fan wants things to go wrong and affect the athletes who have trained so incredibly hard for now over four years to take part, but at the same time, it’s difficult to envisage how a competition of this scale can go ahead in a global pandemic. As it stands, the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games will still go ahead at the end of August, starting two weeks after the Olympic Games finish. What can we expect from the delayed Tokyo 2020 Games?

Describing the situation in Japan as “uncertain” is putting it quite lightly. First off, the committees responsible for both the Olympics and Paralympics are adamant that the Games will absolutely go ahead this year, and Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga has dismissed the notion that the Games will be cancelled outright. The Japanese public, however, aren’t hugely in favour of the competition going ahead: the most recent opinion polls at time of writing showed that between 60 and 80% of the Japanese public would rather the Games were postponed or cancelled. On 15 April, Reuters reported that the secretary of the Liberal Democratic Party – the party that holds the majority in the government of the country – said that cancellation was “of course” an option for the Games. As frustrating as it is for sports lovers and the athletes who have trained (and worried) about this, it’s difficult not to empathise with the Japanese public’s disdain when you see how badly COVID-19 is affecting them.

The country has now entered its fourth wave of the Coronavirus pandemic. Less than 100 days to the start of the Olympics, the country declared a COVID emergency – the third since the pandemic began – which has extended to the capital of Tokyo. It’s worth noting, however, that Japan doesn’t really have much of a choice when it comes to cancelling on the Games; per the BBC, the contract between the International Olympic Committee (and, presumably, by extension the International Paralympic Committee) and the city of Tokyo only mentions cancellation once due to it being considered an extremely unusual scenario, and even then, it’s up to the IOC to decide whether the Games get cancelled or not, not the Japanese government.

It must be said, however, that the IOC appear to be going out of their way to ensure the event will be as safe as they can make it. In a virtual press event attended by the Guardian, IOC vice-president John Coates said: “All the measures we are undertaking will ensure a safe Games regardless of whether there is a state of emergency or not. Provided that we can protect the Japanese public, the most important thing is giving athletes a chance to compete.” By the time the Games begin, most of the athletes – including ParalympicsGB – will be vaccinated, and Seiko Hashimoto, the president of Tokyo 2020, has said that there will be a fleet of up to 230 doctors and 310 nurses on call every day of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Tokyo 2020

Jordanne Whiley sporting the new uniform for ParalymicsGB designed by adidas. Image courtesy of @ParalympicsGB

Who then can go to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games? International spectators will not be allowed to attend the event, which would be pretty difficult regardless as Japan is listed as one of the countries that people in the UK are currently not allowed to fly to over concerns regarding spreading COVID-19, which ultimately is a sensible choice, if not devastating for those looking forward to a holiday in Japan. The number of media personnel has also been cut from 180,000 to 78,000, so the primary ways sports fans will be taking in the Games is through social media and television.

In lighter news, however, all of the Paralympic athletes are ready to go and show the world what they’re made of. This Paralympic Games will see badminton and taekwondo introduced to the schedule, replacing sailing and 7-a-side football. Great Britain will send a delegation of 139 athletes, including a few who have noted success in past Paralympic and Commonwealth Games.

Two previous gold medal winners will represent ParalympicsGB in archery: John Stubbs (who took gold in the men’s individual compound at Beijing in 2008, and silver in the team compound open at Rio in 2016), and Jessica Stretton, who was 16 when she made her gold-medal winning debut at Rio in 2016, making her the youngest person to have ever won Great Britain a medal in archery. 

Track and field events are ripe with talent: British Paralympic legend Hannah Cockroft (winner of five gold medals over two Paralympics and holder of more world and Paralympic records than we could probably count) will compete in Women’s track events alongside Kadeena Cox, Sophie Hahn, Samatha Kinghorn, Kare Adenegan and Olivia Breen. In the Men’s track events, you’ll be able to catch Richard Whitehead and Andrew Small, both medal winners at Rio looking to retain their titles. In the field will be Welsh icons Aled Davies and Sabrina Fortune; Aled won gold in the shot-put at Rio, and gold in the discus and bronze in the shot-put at London, while Sabrina nabbed the bronze in the shot-put F20 event at Rio in 2016. 

The swimming events will see a lot of athletes looking to repeat on their successes from Rio: Thomas Hamer and Scott Quin both took silvers in their respective swimming events at the last Paralympics. Ellie Robinson, Alice Tai, Rebecca Redfern, Jessica-Jane Applegate and Bethany Firth will also be looking to hold on to (or improve) on their medal-winning performances.

We are still waiting on a number of high profile athletes qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Games, including wheelchair tennis legends Lucy Shuker and Jordanne Whiley, the latter of whom was one of the faces of ParalympicsGB’s new uniform launch with adidas.

The wait is almost over, and while there’s still uncertainty lingering in the air, what matters is that we get behind our brilliant Paralympic hopefuls. Good luck, ParalympicsGB!

Keep up-to-date on the progress of the Paralympic athletes at paralympics.org.uk.

All images courtesy of @ParalympicsGB

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