Despite the continued absence of fans, the world’s greatest para-athletes have gathered in the Japanese capital for a fortnight of breath-taking and inspirational sportDick Thomas Johnson/Wikimedia Commons

On 29th July 1948, in the sleepy Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Mandeville, neurologist Ludwig Guttman organised a small archery competition for sixteen wheelchair-using ex-servicemen and women in his care. 73 years on, Dr Guttman’s post-war tournament has grown into an unmissable global sporting event, showcasing the very best of parasports and actively changing the way people view disability.

It has been little over a fortnight since the curtain came down on the 2020 Summer Olympics, but for the next twelve days eyes will again be trained on Tokyo for more extraordinary sport as the Paralympics officially commences. With the Japanese capital still in a state of emergency in response to record numbers of COVID cases and critical care beds nearly at capacity, athletes will remain to compete in empty stadiums. However, this will not dampen the excitement ahead of a Games that many feared would be scrapped entirely due to the pandemic, as Team GB and their international competitors prepare to do battle.

“A record high of 44% of Team GB’s Paralympic delegation are female”

The Brits will look to build on their success from Rio 2016, where they achieved a total of 147 medals, their best haul since 1988, and finished second in the overall medal table. Swimmer Ellie Simmonds, attending her fourth Paralympics at only 26, and Team GB’s oldest member John Stubbs will be flag bearers in today's opening ceremony (24/08). Two athletes at opposite ends of their careers, both will be hoping to improve on their performances from five years ago, as Simmonds is prepared to ‘race her heart out’ in the hope of adding another gold medal to her five-strong collection.

A record high of 44% of Team GB’s Paralympic delegation are female, with Britain’s most decorated female Paralympian, 14-time gold medallist Dame Sarah Storey, pursuing a remarkable record. Competing in her eighth Paralympics, Storey is hoping to surpass swimmer Mike Kenny’s tally of 16 golds to become the all-time record holder with another glorious Games on the cycling track.

The multi-talented Storey remarkably won her first gold model as a 14-year-old swimmer at the 1992 Barcelona Games, before switching to cycling in 2005 due to a persistent ear infection. Overcoming being born without a left hand, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, and an eating disorder, Storey boasts the title of 29-time world champion and holder of 75 records across both disciplines.

“Channel 4 is doing its part to ensure that fans at home will feel closer to the action than ever before”

Meanwhile, Cambridge local Jonnie Peacock will be chasing a third successive world title in the 100 metres, whilst Kadeena Cox looks to defend her gold medals not only on the running track but also in the velodrome, after becoming the first British athlete in 28 years to win a medal in two different sports at the same Paralympics.

Away from Team GB, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to watch out for. Germany’s ‘Blade Jumper’ Markus Rehm wanted to compete in this year’s Olympics after beating his own world record by 14cm in June with a staggering jump of 8.62m, enough to secure gold at every Olympics since 1992. With his request rejected, he will be aiming to show the International Olympic Committee what they’re missing out on by winning a third successive Paralympic title.

Team USA’s Jessica Long, double-amputee and star of Toyata’s 2021 Super Bowl commercial, will look to add to her thirteen gold medals in the pool, but will be counting herself lucky not to face Australia’s brightest medal hope in the water. Ellie Cole took up swimming just eight weeks after losing her right leg to cancer at age three and hasn’t looked back since, with fifteen medals to her name.

Perhaps this year’s most inspirational tale comes from Afghanistan, where taekwondo fighter Zakia Khudaddi’s dreams of becoming her nation’s first female Paralympian were threatened after the Taliban takeover grounded all flights from Kabul to Tokyo. In an extraordinary show of solidarity across the sporting world, former Australian football captain Craig Foster led an extraordinary effort, involving Aussie sports stars including Paralympian Kurt Fearnley and Olympic skier turned MP Zali Steggall, to convince the Canberra government to evacuate Khudadi and other female athletes using its military forces stationed at Kabul airport. Remarkably, there is still a chance Khudadi will compete in Tokyo.


Mountain View

Tokyo 2020: an Olympics like no other

With all of parasports’ biggest stars raring to go, it is undoubtedly a shame that there will be no spectators at the event. Despite an absence of supporters in Tokyo’s stadiums, Channel 4 is doing its part to ensure that fans at home will feel closer to the action than ever before with a record-breaking level of coverage of the Games - three times more than the BBC had of the Olympics. Pete Andrews, Channel 4’s head of sport, explained: “this is the biggest Paralympics we have ever done. It is a huge part of the channel’s identity and a massive schedule commitment”. Over 70% of the channel’s presenters will have a disability, including former wheelchair basketball player Ade Adepitan spearheading the highlights show Today in Tokyo live from Japan. The channel will also see a return of The Last Leg, as the ‘three guys with four legs’ in Adam Hills, Alex Brooker, and Josh Widdicombe are set to present a hilarious round-up show aired daily.

It has been hard to miss Channel 4’s ingenious marketing for the Games, as their playful slogan, “It would be rude not to stare”, features on bus-stops and newspapers across the UK, subverting the conventional advice given to children when they see someone with a disability. The latest in their Super. Human. series of short films features Simmonds, Cox, and other members of Team GB preparing for the games, as well as ends with the joking, yet thought-provoking, line: “To be a Paralympian, there’s got to be something wrong with you”. Through its ambitious coverage and innovative marketing, Channel 4 continues to do sterling work in not only bringing attention to, but also changing perceptions of, the often overlooked world of disability sports.

Coverage of this year’s Paralympic Games will run from 24th August - 5th September on Channel 4, beginning with the opening ceremony at 12pm today.