Tokyo 2020 Paralympics briefing: glory, despair and everything else
And suddenly that was that, and Tokyo 2020 was in the rear-view mirror. The Paralympics delivered us 12 incredible days of action – but on the whole the legacy of these Games will remain uncertain for some time to come. With just a couple of days left of the event, Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga announced he was to step down from his party’s leadership amid mounting discontent at his government’s handling of the Covid pandemic. Japan’s attention has maybe not fully been on the Paralympics.
But our attention was. I always think with the Paralympics there is an element where participation is a reward in itself. Who can forget Ellie Robinson’s emotional speech declaring that beating her debilitating hip condition and finishing fifth in the the final of the women’s S6 50m butterfly was “a story of triumph, not a story of defeat”?
But that isn’t the whole story of a Paralympics, because over the last 12 days we saw all of the glory and despair that you’d expect from a multi-sport international contest. I keep thinking about Australia’s Lauren Parker, losing the triathlon gold medal that had been in her grasp for the whole race until the very last couple of metres as the USA’s Kendall Gretsch chased her down.
Or the despair of Brazil’s Jerusa Geber Dos Santos’s whose tether anchoring her to her guide broke in the first few strides of the women’s T11 100m, leading to her disqualification. Five years of hard work literally undone. Sports at its rawest and most cruel.
And then there are those incredible multi-medallist Paralympians who simply refuse to let age and disability dim their competitive spirit, and keep coming back to medal and medal and medal again. Jessica Long, Sophie Pascoe, Ihar Boki, Lee Pearson, Sarah Storey, Hannah Cockroft and more. And competitors such as Jetze Plat and Marcel Hug who are just totally dominant in their field.
Jen Colla was in touch with me from Australia, and she said: “It’s a bit sad today knowing the Paralympics are over as they’ve brought so much joy to a world that doesn’t have a lot in it at the moment. Watching these amazing, talented humans achieving the results they did, regardless if it was on the podium, was wonderful.” She also wanted to recommend gold-medal winner Dylan Alcott’s podcast ListenAble.
It’s been fascinating looking at how different countries prepare their athletes and where they focus their resources. The Netherlands with a seemingly never-ending stream of wheelchair tennis talent, Ukraine’s traditional spot near the top of the medal table, Azerbaijan’s investment in para-judo, the fact there’s no type of football tournament in the world that Brazil aren’t good at.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I am a fan of endurance events and loved the cycling, triathlons and marathons, but I think my favourite event at Tokyo 2020 was the wheelchair rugby. I love the tactical side of it – that much of the skill in the game is working out how to occasionally prevent the opposition from scoring while relentlessly turning your own possession into tries. And I relished the physical aggression of it – belying the idea that people are just happy to be able to turn up and play at a Paralympics. “Chess with violence” they sometimes call it.
The annotated emoji table
Here’s how the medal table in Tokyo ended up – with a few notes.
1 🇨🇳 China 🥇 96 🥈 60 🥉 51 total: 207
China once again dominated the Paralympics, albeit with slightly fewer medals than they earned in London and Rio, but it just goes to show what you can achieve if you have a large talent pool and are prepared to invest in the infrastructure for para-sports.
2 🇬🇧 Great Britain 🥇 41 🥈 38 🥉 45 total: 124
ParalympicsGB tried to slightly downplay expectations going into the Games, because with little competition happening in advance it was difficult for athletes to gauge how each other would perform. It is the sixth time in the last seven Games that Britain has finished second in the table. The team are particularly proud that they won medals in 18 different sports.
3 🇺🇸 USA 🥇 37 🥈 36 🥉 31 total: 104
Team victories on the final Sunday allowed the USA to haul themselves just above Not Russia on golds won, even if more athletes from the Russian Paralympic Committee earned podium places overall.
4 ◻️ Not Russia 🥇 36 🥈 33 🥉 49 total: 118
Athletes from Russia competed in Tokyo under the banner of the Russian Paralympic Committee as part of a punishment for the cover-up of a massive state-sponsored doping programme. The original four-year suspension was halved to two, but will continue to apply to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
5 🇳🇱 Netherlands 🥇 25 🥈 17 🥉 17 total: 59
Aided by their relentless production of wheelchair tennis champions, 2020 was the Netherlands’ best gold medal haul since winning 31 in Seoul in 1988.
6 🇺🇦 Ukraine 🥇 24 🥈 47 🥉 27 total: 98
Ukraine have been a powerhouse since the 2004 Games, rarely far from the top of the medal table. This year’s total is actually down on the 41 golds they won in Rio.
7 🇧🇷 Brazil 🥇 22 🥈 20 🥉 30 total: 72
This was Brazil’s highest ever number of gold medals, bettering the 21 golds they won at London 2012.
8 🇦🇺 Australia 🥇 21 🥈 29 🥉 30 total: 80
Australia’s chef de mission, Kate McLoughlin, said: “A lot gets spoken about the resilience and determination of para-athletes. But I don’t think those qualities have ever been more clearly displayed than by this incredible team over not just these two weeks here in Tokyo, but right throughout this five-year Games cycle.”
9 🇮🇹 Italy 🥇 14 🥈 29 🥉 26 total: 69
An exceptional Games. It is the most golds they have claimed since Seoul in 1988, and their highest overall medal tally since hosting the very first Paralympics in Rome in 1960.
10 🇦🇿 Azerbaijan 🥇 14 🥈 1 🥉 4 total: 19
Judo was the backbone of Azerbaijan’s performance, with six golds in the Nippon Budokan adding to four in the pool and four in the track and field events.
11 🇯🇵 Japan 🥇 13 🥈 15 🥉 23 total: 51
Japan missed their stated target of 20 gold medals, and became the first Paralympic hosts since Greece in 2004 not to be in the top 10 at the end of their Games.
12 🇩🇪 Germany 🥇 13 🥈 12 🥉 18 total: 43
Long gone are the days when Germany used to finish in the top three in the Paralympics medal table – and their Tokyo performance delivered 14 fewer medals than Rio did.
13 🇮🇷 Iran 🥇 12 🥈 11 🥉 1 total: 24
An impressive performance in the Japan National Stadium with 11 athletics medals, as well as retaining the sitting volleyball title.
14 🇫🇷 France 🥇 11 🥈 15 🥉 28 total: 54
Since winning at least 30 gold medals in each of the 1992, 1996 and 2000 editions, France’s medal haul has dwindled somewhat. Hosting the Games in 2024 will hopefully inject a boost of interest – and cash – back into French para-sport.
15 🇪🇸 Spain 🥇 9 🥈 15 🥉 12 total: 36
Spain equalled their number of golds in Rio, and slightly boosted their overall medal count from 32 to 36.
Selected others …
21 🇳🇿 New Zealand 🥇 6 🥈 3 🥉 3 total: 12
Fully a third of New Zealand’s medals were down to the incredible Sophie Pascoe alone.
23 🇨🇦 Canada 🥇 5 🥈 10 🥉 6 total: 21
A mixed result for Canada. They got almost twice as many medals as they did in Rio, but three fewer golds.
24 🇮🇳 India 🥇 5 🥈 8 🥉 6 total: 19
India won more gold medals at Tokyo 2020 than they had won in every other Games put together, with their total of 19 topping their previous best of four by some margin.
32 🇮🇪 Ireland 🥇 4 🥈 2 🥉 1 total: 7
Ellen Keane, Jason Smyth and Katie-George Dunlevy’s double ensured that Ireland matched their gold medal haul at Rio.
There were 78 different countries that earned a medal, and 14 out of the 162 Paralympic Committees competing secured a single one. Bhutan, Grenada, Guyana, Maldives, Paraguay, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines were all making debuts at the Paralympics, but none of their athletes won medals. Athletes from Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Montenegro and Oman won their nations’ first ever Paralympic medals.
You might also enjoy reading …
My colleague Paul MacInnes has an exclusive interview today with Tony Estanguet, the president of the Paris 2024 organising committee, and there are some fascinating details in it, like the current ideas that the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2024 Games will be held in the streets rather than in the stadium, and that the public will be able to participate in the marathons and cycling road races on the same courses as the athletes. It is a fascinating read: Paris 2024 takes opening ceremonies to the streets in Games for the people.
The last word
I’ll have the last word myself today. Thank you so much for reading our daily briefing through all of the Olympics and the Paralympics, you basically read a small novel over the last six weeks. I hope you have enjoyed our coverage. With Tokyo 2020 over, I’m going back to my day job on the news desk, but we shall no doubt see each other around on the Guardian website. Take care, stay safe, and thank you.