History repeated itself on Tuesday, August 24th, at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. A little over a month after the opening of the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games took over the venue. The setting was the same, and so was the atmosphere. A stadium without spectators. A heavy sanitary context. A deliberately simplified decorum. And, in the speeches, the expression of deep relief.
Like a month earlier, the official stand was empty. Few dignitaries made the trip to Japan. The most watched was Douglas Emhoff, the husband of US Vice President Kamala Harris. But the Japanese played the game. Emperor Naruhito gave the opening speech for the second time. Yoshihide Suga, the Prime Minister, stood beside him to watch the show. Thomas Bach was not far away. But this time the privilege of addressing the athletes fell to Andrew Parsons, the President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
“I can’t believe we are finally here,” said the Brazilian leader. “Many doubted this day would come, many thought it was impossible, but thanks to the efforts of many, the most transformative sporting event on the planet is about to begin.”
In total, the ceremony was attended by less than 7,000 people, in an Olympic stadium that can accommodate ten times that number. According to official figures, the 162 delegations at the Paralympic Games were represented by around 3,400 athletes and officials. The media was also present, as it had been a month earlier, with 2,400 journalists and technicians. Only 800 guests and “stakeholders” (IPC, International Federations, Organising Committee, etc.) were counted.
A refugee team marched during the parade of nations. The Afghan flag was carried by a volunteer, in the absence of the two athletes involved, prevented from reaching Japan because of the cancellation of all commercial flights from Kabul. As in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, France was the penultimate delegation to march as the host country of the next Games. Japan came last. Its delegation included 253 athletes. It is the largest delegation of the Games.
Then the flame was lit by three Japanese Paralympic athletes: bronze medallist in wheelchair tennis at the Rio 2016 Games, Yui Kamiji, boccia player Shunsuke Uchida, and powerlifting specialist Karin Morisaki.
The Games can begin. They are shaping up to be the most uncertain in history, because of the sanitary context, despite stricter anti-COVID measures imposed by the Japanese organisers.
The IPC has made its calculations: the Tokyo Games will mark a new step for the Paralympic movement. The number of delegations (162) remains lower than that the one recorded in London in 2012 (164), but for the rest, all records have been broken.
First of all, the number of sports. With the entry of taekwondo and badminton, the programme now includes 22 sports, for a total of 539 sessions.
Secondly, the athletes. A total of 4,403 athletes received accreditation for the Tokyo Games. The previous record was set at the Rio 2016 Games, when the event attracted 4,328 competitors. Unlike the Olympic Games, parity has not yet been achieved, as Tokyo 2020 has 2,550 male and 1,853 female athletes. But women are making progress. There were 1,671 women at the Rio 2016 Games.
Finally, universality. Five countries are represented for the first time at the Paralympic Games: Bhutan, Grenada, the Maldives, Paraguay and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. But 21 National Paralympic Committees were unable to participate. Four of them were suspended by the IPC: Comoros, Djibouti, Seychelles and Sudan. Four others simply did not have any athletes to send: Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Liechtenstein and San Marino. Finally, for two countries, Macao and Suriname, the decision to withdraw came from the athletes themselves.