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The closing ceremonies for the Tokyo Olympics may have been August. 8. But if you were as pumped about watching Team USA go for the gold as we were, don’t sleep on the fact that there’s another round of international athletic competition coming soon to your screens: the Paralympic Games.
From August 24 to September 5, athletes with disabilities will take to the same Tokyo tracks, pools, and roads to test their abilities against the best in the world. The Paralympic Games have all the drama of the Olympics and then some, says Chris Waddell, a 13-time Paralympic medalist in skiing and wheelchair racing who’s now a Paralympic track and field analyst for NBC and the host of the Nametags Chat podcast, where he interviews prominent athletes.
Paralympians often have to overcome significant obstacles—from birth defects to illnesses to spinal cord injuries—en route to their quest for the podium (for instance, Waddell had a skiing accident and is paralyzed from waist down). Many athletes use unique and impressively engineered equipment, from sleek racing chairs to 3D-printed gloves to carbon-fiber running blades. All that comes on top of the sheer strength, power, and skill it takes to qualify for the Games, let alone medal there.
“The athleticism of these athletes is so cool, and so is seeing games and sports you know being played in a different way,” says Amanda McGrory, a wheelchair racer and seven-time Paralympic medalist competing in her fourth games in Tokyo. “It’s not just for people with disabilities to watch people with disabilities compete. These are incredible athletes achieving incredible things, and it really is and should be for everyone.”
Public awareness of the Paralympics got a huge boost last year thanks to the documentary Rising Phoenix—which taught us, among other things, that the name Paralympics denotes that the Games exist parallel to the Olympics, not that they’re only for paralyzed or paraplegic athletes. The film stars and was produced by wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden. (And seriously, if you haven’t watched it yet, queue it up now—it’s a great way to spend the time between competitions.)
This year, the Paralympics are easier than ever to watch in real time. NBC will air an unprecedented 1,200 hours of Paralympic programming (a number that’s increased dramatically in the past decade; the London Paralympics received only 5.5 hours of coverage in 2012). For the first time, this will include primetime network airtime that will blend event coverage with athlete features and interviews. Many events—including the marathon—will stream on Peacock, and NBCSN will televise the Games from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. EDT daily. Check nbcolympics.com for updated schedules.
The short version of Paralympic Games history
The Paralympic movement dates back to the 1940s and the work of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German neurosurgeon who emigrated to London as the Nazis rose to power. In 1943, he took over the new spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, located in a British village of the same name. Dr. Guttmann firmly believed rehabilitation could help people who had paralysis or other conditions live healthier, happier lives. Sports—including wheelchair polo, wheelchair basketball, and archery—served as an important component of his efforts.
The same day as the opening ceremony of the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Dr. Guttmann staged the first Stoke Mandeville Games, in which 16 injured service members competed in archery. Four years later, the competition went international when Dutch veterans joined the lineup. And in 1960, the Stoke Mandeville Games officially became the Paralympic Games, with 400 athletes from 23 countries competing in Rome.
Compiling the artifacts of this history is one of the coolest parts of McGrory’s other job. In addition to being an elite athlete, she’s the archivist and collections curator for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC). She started in the role about a year ago, after finishing her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, a U.S. Paralympic Training Site renowned for its programs in wheelchair track and field and other para sports.
As she settles in, she’s aiming to incorporate even more Paralympic displays into the new U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum. For instance, she recently helped track down the first-ever Paralympic gold medal. It was won by Jack Whitman, an archer who—coincidentally—was the brother of a former co-worker of McGrory’s. The medal had been stored in the basement of the University of Illinois’ Disability Resources & Educational Services building; now, it’s in the museum, along with his bow.
The summer Paralympics have been held every four years since 1960, and the Winter Paralympics debuted in 1976. Thanks to an agreement between the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, beginning in 1988 for the Summer Games and 1992 for the Winter Games, the Paralympics are staged after the Olympics in the same cities, using the same facilities.
While some have asked why they aren’t held simultaneously, Waddell and McGrory both note how logistically difficult it would be to add thousands more athletes to the Olympic Village at the same time. Not to mention, unless the events were somehow re-organized, the competition would likely stretch six weeks.
In fact, the post-Olympic timing is normally advantageous for Paralympians. “The Olympics are kind of a trial run,” McGrory says. “They can iron out any issues they have with transportation or anything in the village, and then by the time the Paralympics come around, they’re set and ready to go.”
This year, with threats of COVID outbreaks, she’s a bit more uneasy about the implications of Olympic mishaps—but recognizes that testing and other protocols fall into the category of things athletes can’t control. Just like Olympians, she and other Paralympic competitors will work hard to maintain their focus even in the face of uncertainty.
The Paralympic Games show the power of movement to change the narrative
Athletes and activists have long seen sports as both a place to fight for inclusion of people with disabilities and a powerful force that can transform not only individual lives, but societal attitudes. And in recent years, Paralympians have made huge strides in catching up to their Olympic peers.
For one thing, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee changed its name in 2019 from the U.S. Olympic Committee, formally recognizing the organization’s dedication to Paralympic sport. And from working on the inside, McGrory says the update is more than just semantics—every day, she sees other staffers purposely include Paralympians in museum exhibits, marketing campaigns, and more.
The Tokyo Games also represent a huge financial milestone. For the first year ever, Paralympic medalists will earn the same payout as Olympians—$37,500 for gold, $22,500 for silver, $15,000 for bronze. That’s as much as a 400-percent raise for some Paralympians.
Of course, there are still inequities and challenges to overcome—some of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Restrictions on the size of the delegation traveling to Japan led to deaf-blind swimmer Becca Myers announcing she couldn’t compete because she was denied the services of her personal care assistant. And McFadden has posted about the differences in amenities offered to the families of Olympians and Paralympians.
Unfortunately, the marginalization of those with disabilities remains a persistent problem: “Beneath the surface, it’s kind of taken at face value that disability means less,” Waddell says. But he also firmly believes the Paralympics can—and have—begun a larger shift. “Sport can be a great vehicle for challenging that, one that hopefully helps with employment and with representation throughout society.”
Indeed, McFadden’s own example as an activist and athlete proves you can continue to push for change while celebrating the accomplishments you’ve made, and cheering for the victories of others. Take Rising Phoenix: Her producer role enabled her to insist that the crew also include people with disabilities, and in the end, they accounted for 16 percent of the film’s staff.
What to expect at the Paralympics this summer
All 539 events and 22 sports at the Tokyo Paralympics are worth checking out—you might spot an archer shooting with his feet, a clash in wheelchair rugby (which was once called “murderball”), or a fast-paced game of sitting volleyball. But track and field, aka athletics, is the natural spot for runners and running fans to plug in, and the action starts August 27.
The basics will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a road race or a track meet. Whoever crosses the finish line first—or, in the case of field events, throws or jumps a greater distance or height—takes the victory. “It’s the same sport, the same distances, but what’s different can also make it really interesting too,” Waddell says.
First off, athletes are classified based on their type and degree of impairment. This ensures fair competition by matching up those who have similar conditions, be it missing limbs or visual impairment or nerve damage. The system also specifies which assistive tools and technologies they can use. Athletes in some classes—including wheelchair racers (categories T51 to T54) and seated throwers (F51 to F57)—compete in chairs or frames, while others stand. Some, but not all, use prosthetic limbs or straps.
You’ve likely seen wheelchair racers like McFadden and McGrory competing in major marathons like Chicago and New York, and they’ll both be rolling through 26.2 miles in Tokyo as well as competing on the track. McGrory calls the sport a cross between running, cycling, and speed skating. Athletes compete in lightweight chairs, often made of carbon fiber, custom-designed for their body measurements and disabilities. Unlike handcycles, which operate more like bicycles, racing chairs are pushed purely using the strength of athletes’ arms.
Racing in a chair requires not only tremendous upper-body strength, but also a tricky balance between drafting and positioning, Waddell says. Like cyclists, wheelchair racers can gain an aerodynamic advantage by following another athlete. But then you have to maneuver your six-foot-long chair around a pack of others to get to the front, all while traveling faster than 20 miles per hour and navigating curves (on a track) or hills and turns (during the marathon). “The different skills you have to master as a wheelchair athlete—there are so many of them, which makes it really interesting to watch,” McGrory says.
Races among athletes using prosthetics are also similar to Olympic races with a few fascinating differences, Waddell says. Their start positions might vary some from their Olympic peers and from each other—take note, for instance, whether those with one prosthetic place that leg or their biological leg on the front starting block. Watching what happens when double-amputees accelerate and increase their turnover also provides a dynamic physics demonstration, Waddell says, in addition to a thrilling competition. In some cases, they may run faster than able-bodied competitors.
In visually impaired categories, some athletes compete with a guide, adding an element of coordination and communication. “It starts with finding a guide that can go that fast—most runners can’t say, ‘Hey, I’ll just jump in and run a mid-10 [second] 100 meters,’” Waddell says. “Then, it’s teamwork. They have a lash in between connecting their hands, but you see how they end up running in symmetry as well.” For field events, guides can use audio cues—such as call-outs and hand-claps—to indicate when to stride and when to leap.
Athletes and storylines to watch at the Tokyo Paralympics
And on top of all that are the individual stories—athletes who overcame setbacks to pursue excellence. Every Paralympian has one; here are a few of the most compelling that we’re tracking this year.
- The return of Tatyana McFadden. The 17-time medalist, now 32, has been clear about her goals: winning gold in all five events for which she’s qualified (the 400 meters, 800 meters, 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, and marathon). But after Rio, she had blood clots that required surgeries and extensive time off. This year, she’ll face stiff competition both from abroad—including Switzerland’s Manuela Schär, 36—and from her own teammates, including Susannah Scaroni, 30, and McGrory, 35, who says this will likely be her final Games.
- Rising young athletes make their debut. Lining up alongside veterans like McFadden and McGrory are the next generation of up-and-coming athletes. They include Hannah Dederick, who’s just 18 but is already ranked second in the world in the 100 meters and fifth in the 400 meters in the T54 class of wheelchair racing. And Sydney Barta, 17—who’s just heading into her senior year of high school—will line up in the 100 meters and 200 meters in the T64 class, for those with below-the-knee lower limb deficiencies who use prosthetics.
- Potential American domination in the T64 category. Barta is currently ranked fifth in the world in the 100 meters, and the second- and third-place slots are held by her teammates. Femita Ayanbeku, 29, set the American record of 12.84 at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Track and Field in Minneapolis in June, with Beatriz Hatz, 20, just behind her in 12.86. While it’s not clear who will prevail in Tokyo—Ayanbeku, who lost her leg in a car accident at 11 and will head to her second Paralympics, or Hatz, who was born without a fibula and trains at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista with able-bodied heptathletes—the trio could sweep the podium.
- A surprise world record holder returns to the track, while her teammate raises mental health awareness. Brittni Mason, 23, is a runner at Division I Eastern Michigan University who has Erb’s palsy, a condition that affects her shoulder and arm movement. At first, she didn’t even realize she was eligible to compete as a para athlete. She went to her first international track meet at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, and to say it went well was an understatement—she set a new world record of 11.89 for the 100 meters in the T47 class, for athletes with upper limb impairment. Reigning gold medalist Deja Young, 25, will also be in Tokyo to defend her title in the same event—and call attention to the issue of athlete mental health. Just like Olympians Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, Young has been open about her history with anxiety and depression.
- A collegiate lacrosse player takes to the track. Noelle Lambert, 24, had just finished her freshman year as a lacrosse player at the University of Massachusetts Lowell in Boston when a moped accident resulted in the amputation of her left leg. While doctors doubted she’d run again, she returned to the field in March 2018 with her prosthetic. After graduation, she turned her focus to running and now trains with Ayanbeku. As she told Waddell on his podcast, the drills she used to return to lacrosse may have also improved her sprinting—Lambert placed fourth in the 100 meters in the 2019 World Championships and will now compete at that distance in Tokyo. She’s also the founder of the Born to Run Foundation, which provides specialized prosthetics to children and adults.
- A mom of two remains among the world’s best, a quarter-century later. Many of her teammates weren’t even born when wheelchair racer Cheri Madsen, 44, won her first medals in Atlanta in 1996—a bronze in the 800 meters during an exhibition race at the Olympics, followed by two silvers and two bronzes at the Paralympic Games the same summer. After two Games and seven medals, she left racing for 13 years. She returned to compete in Rio in 2016 in memory of her brother Mario, who was killed in a collision between a car and a train in 2007 and had always encouraged her to share the joy of traveling and competition with her two daughters.