After a year of postponement and great uncertainty as to whether they would even start, the Paralympics in Tokyo opened on Tuesday with fireworks and an almost audible sigh of relief.
Judo athlete Priscilla Gagne carried the Canadian flag into the national stadium at the opening ceremony and said it was an immense pleasure to compete again after 19 challenging months amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“ It’s a bit like the old (Joni Mitchell) song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. ‘ I don’t know what you have until it’s gone, ”said Gagne.
While fears that the Tokyo Olympics would be canceled amid growing cases of the pandemic in Japan, that fear was compounded for Paralympic athletes who believed that an outbreak during the Olympics would completely wipe out their Games.
“We were all relieved,” said Canada’s head chef Stephanie Dixon. “ It was so great to see how the COVID measures worked at the Olympics, how our Canadian delegation did so well and how they got home safely. It built trust for all of us.
“ If the Olympics didn’t go well, there is a very good chance we won’t make it here. It was great to see how well the Olympics were received around the world too. And now our athletes are really pumped up and hope to carry this momentum further. ”
Andrew Parsons, President of the International Paralympic Committee, said at the opening of the Games: “I can’t believe we’re finally here. Many doubted that this would ever happen. . . The most transformative sporting event is just around the corner. “
Despite COVID-19 restrictions, which were some of the strictest in the world, Canada won 24 medals in the Olympics, most of them ever at non-boycotted Summer Olympics. Canada claimed 44 in the 1984 Los Angeles boycotted Summer Games.
Gagne, a 35-year-old from Sarnia, Ontario, led a tiny contingent of less than half a dozen Canadians in red jackets and white jeans into the National Stadium, a sign of the cautious times these games were being held. The majority of the athletes watched the ceremony play out at an outdoor viewing party hosted by the Canadian team in the athletes’ village.
“Just to be on the extra cautious side of COVID and competition from the next day,” said Dixon. “ We have a lot of immunocompromised athletes at the Paralympic Games and we just want to take all possible precautions to ensure that we can protect our Canadian athletes as well as athletes from other countries. So yeah, we’re taking extra precautions here at the Paralympic Games from Team Canada anyway. ”
Gagne, who has retinitis pigmentosa, a visual impairment, had her training partner and guide Laurie Wiltshire fly the flag next to her Tuesday in a “We Have Wings” ceremony. The thread of the topic ran through the performances at a “ Para Airport ”, celebrating a small single-wing aircraft that had given up flying but was inspired by other aircraft.
The six-member Refugee Paralympic team was the first to march into a stadium that, like the Olympics, which opened a month earlier, had no fans to greet the athletes, just media and the enthusiastic volunteers lining their route . None of the games managed to escape the pandemic, despite being postponed for a year, and the unusual circumstances were felt in the cavernous – and almost empty – stadium.
If athletes felt the effects of the empty grandstands at the Olympics, it certainly wasn’t reflected in their performances. Dixon hopes the same goes for Paralympic athletes.
“Athletes are so versatile,” said Dixon, who won 19 Paralympic swimming medals for Canada. “ That is their job, to adapt to the situation they are in and to do their best in the given situation. We saw that at the Olympics, incredible accomplishments, and not just great accomplishments in the face of COVID, but incredible in every way.
“ It is proof of how strong our athletes are mentally and how much resilience they have. ”
Canada won 29 medals, including eight gold medals, at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Like their Olympic counterparts, the Canadian Paralympic Committee has not set a medal target for its 128-strong team in Tokyo.
Given the challenges of the past 19 months and the various restrictions in each country, it has been too difficult to assess the situation in Canada. Dixon said medal goals would only put more pressure on athletes during these uniquely tough times.
At the 16th Paralympics, around 4,400 athletes from 162 countries compete against each other in 22 different sports over 12 days of competition. In total, there are three more countries than in Rio in 2016, a remarkable achievement when you consider the events of the past year and a half.
Japan is still in its fourth state of emergency, which began ahead of the Tokyo Olympics amid rising COVID cases
“It makes me very proud to have 162 (teams) compete against each other in Tokyo,” said Parsons. “ The last 18 months have been the greatest challenges so far for everyone involved in the Paralympic Movement. ”
Five countries are making their Paralympic debut: Bhutan, Grenada, Maldives, Paraguay and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
However, more than 20 countries pulled out of Tokyo for a variety of reasons, including four countries – Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu – that were experiencing travel issues related to the pandemic. Afghanistan was the most notable absence that was forced to withdraw its two athletes following the recent Taliban takeover. In a message of solidarity – not there, but not forgotten – the IPC included the Afghanistan flag in the parade of nations on Tuesday.
Canada’s para team has traditionally been strong at swimming, athletics, and cycling. Dixon said it will be interesting to see volleyball and goalball. She said the postponement of the year was a blessing for both teams as they were centralized and could practice that time together.
Canada qualified in five team sports, including wheelchair rugby and men’s and women’s basketball. The return of Patrick Anderson, considered the greatest wheelchair basketball player in history, should give men’s basketball a big boost. The 42-year-old is taking part in his fifth Paralympics.
He said the unique challenges surrounding the pandemic would mean a little more for a medal in Tokyo.
“ (We have) this competitive fire to try and win, ” Anderson said. “ But it’s almost like playing with house money. I’m really proud of all the success I’ve had with Team Canada, but honestly, winning a medal (in Tokyo) is going to feel harder than anything we’ve had in the past. This medal would be extra heavy – in a positive sense. “
While there is a common misconception that “ Para ” in Paralympics refers to the paraplegic, it actually stands for parallel, meaning that the Paralympics are parallel to the Olympics. The Olympic rings have been replaced with the Paralympic “ agitos ” – Latin for “ to move ” – in red, blue and green as the most common colors in the flags of the world.