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By Tom Harle in Tokyo
Hannah Cockroft was the first British athlete to race in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, the first to break a world record and the first to offer an honest take on the potential impact of empty stadiums on the Paralympic movement.
The Halifax hurricane blew at all-time high speed to win gold in the T34 100m, leaving devastation in her wake and setting a massive new world record of 16.39 seconds.
But for Cockroft it was quiet, too quiet.
After all, wheelchair racing's greatest of all time saw the stunning 60,000-seater arena packed to the rafters in 2019, playing her part in its official opening alongside Usain Bolt.
The sound of silence left her to ruminate on when, and indeed whether, we will see full Paralympic stadiums again.
“It’s quiet out there. Very quiet,” said Cockroft.
“And I know that as Paralympians, we’re used to that. But it felt like a shock when we were on the start line and there was no noise. It’s very sad and it does worry me.
“The Paralympics, every four years, are our time to get bums on seats and get people interested, at least for the next couple of years. And that opportunity has been taken away from us.
“We just have to hope that Covid’s out the way next year and that people come out. We are always there, we’re always racing, people don’t have to wait for the Paralympics to come and watch us.
“We don’t fill stadiums, unfortunately. We just have to keep pushing towards that and we have to hope that this is not a loss of momentum for the Paralympic Games.”
This was the eighth world record she has set in the last year and the most impressive, because it came in a Paralympic final where failure wasn’t an option for an athlete who has only ever lost one international race.
The prospect of failure flickered in her mind when the only fellow T34 racer to ever beat her, Britain’s Kare Adenegan, surged into a significant lead at the 30-metre mark.
“There was definite panic there,” said Cockroft of being so far behind off the start line.
“The 100m, when you’re sitting on that start line, looks so short. Kare went, and I thought, ‘I haven’t got enough time. I need 120.’
“I had raced Kare only once this year so it was a shock all round. I had no idea how hard they were pushing.
“You just need to get your head down and get your arms moving.”
The speed of Cockroft’s turnover and her sheer power saw her surge past Adenegan in the middle phase and claim a dominant victory by a margin of 0.64 seconds.
Cockroft is only now over halfway to matching Tanni-Grey Thompson’s all-time haul of 11 Paralympic titles.
With only two events on the T34 programme, unlike in Thompson’s time when there were four, wheelchair racing is probably now too competitive for her to beat all comers across another three Games.
Cockroft’s focus is really now on driving her times down and breaking barriers. The 16-second barrier is unthinkable but next on the agenda, a testament to her progress given she was stuck on 17 seconds for six years, from 2012 until 2018.
“I just came off the line and somebody said to me, ‘sub-16 is in you,” she said.
"If you’d said that to me last year, no way. I’ve been trying to get sub-17 for seven years, so to be flying through the 16s is exciting but scary, because I don’t know where I’m going to go next.”
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