An extraordinary summer is drawing to a close and, as I get ready to leave Tokyo, there’s finally time to draw breath and reflect on a very special Paralympic Games. A Games that, in the words of Andrew Parsons, the IPC President, ‘many doubted would happen, many thought it impossible’.
Japan proved to once again be wonderful hosts in the most challenging of situations. The best athletes from around the world gathered to inspire, awe, entertain and exceed expectation. The British team showed unbelievable resilience and were exceptional on and off the field of play.
There were sobering moments, too, reminding us all of the wider world beyond sport. In the Opening Ceremony key workers helped to carry the Paralympic flag, and then during the athletes’ parade, a Games volunteer carried in the Afghanistan flag, as an act of solidarity after their two Paralympic athletes were unable to travel for the start of the Games.
A few days later we heard that those athletes had been able to leave Afghanistan and arrived to compete in Tokyo thanks to an incredible coordinated effort across various embassies and National Paralympic Committees, including the British Paralympic Association.
Powerhouse of passion and performance
With extraordinary events happening around the world, now and over the past 18 months, ParalympicsGB can be extremely proud of how they have adapted and evolved at these Games to remain a powerhouse of passion and performance in Paralympic sport. To better the number of medals achieved from London 2012 with a final total of 124, is nothing short of remarkable.
British athletes have come together from all parts of the UK and collectively delivered a lesson in the art of resilience, passion and ambition resulting in extraordinary moments which have uplifted and inspired the nation.
I think what strikes me the most is the breadth of the success this time. British athletes have made history by winning medals in 18 different sports – this is a record for any nation at the Paralympics. From wheelchair rugby to powerlifting, from the new sports of badminton and taekwondo to the long‐established sports of swimming and athletics the variety is both impressive and exciting.
Great reward for the sacrifices made
British athletes have achieved these record‐breaking feats amid the most difficult and unusual of circumstances. Like many people in the UK, and indeed over the world, life has been anything but normal and yet the athletes still committed to train at the highest possible standards in any way manageable so they could compete at the greatest sporting event of their lives.
Many of the Paralympians have experienced extended periods of shielding and considerable time away from families or their own support teams. And yet their dreams and desire did not diminish.
From Ali Jawad who has spent much of the past three years shielding to protect his compromised immune system, to Ryan Cockbill building a shooting range at home, to Ellie Robinson’s impassioned speech after competing, British Paralympians have displayed new levels of resilience and optimism.
Understandably their attitudes and ambitions have captured the attention of the British public and their phenomenal performances have enthralled us every day. To achieve what they have at these Games is an absolute triumph and it has been a privilege to have been able to witness first‐hand the incredible performances of athletes here in Tokyo.
The most competitive Paralympic Games ever
It always feels very special to have been present for moments in sporting history. From Wimbledon to the World Cup people talk for decades about what they saw, who they were with and how they celebrated.
Tokyo 2020 and Paralympics GB have spoiled us with the number of breakthrough moments of Paralympic history. Not even the torrential rain at the women’s cycling road race could dampen spirits as Sarah Storey became the most successful British Paralympian of all time with her third gold in Tokyo and 17th in total across eight Paralympics. The 20 members of the cycling team are all returning home with medals, more than any other Paralympic cycling team in history.
Our equestrian dressage team also remains the best in the world, winning a team gold medal at every Games since the sport was introduced in 1996. Lee Pearson, part of that team and now a 14‐ time Paralympic champion having picked up three more gold medals in Tokyo, spoke proudly, sensitively and with his trademark good humour about LGBTQ+ equality.
David Smith became our most successful Boccia player with his fifth medal. Another seasoned campaigner, Jeanette Chippington competing in canoe sprint, has now medalled in all seven Games she has attended and who couldn’t be thrilled for Sue Bailey winning her first table tennis medal at her sixth Paralympics.
But it wasn’t just the experienced athletes who delivered their own slice of GB history. Beth Munro and Daniel Bethell became the first GB athletes to compete and win medals in para‐taekwondo and para‐badminton respectively. So many of the younger members of the team and our new champions have been inspired by those they are now competing alongside, like Maisie Summers‐Newton and Ellie Simmonds in the pool.
All of these incredible moments have been achieved at what is officially the most competitive Paralympic Games ever. More nations, 86, have won at least one medal in Tokyo, surpassing the previous number set in Rio.
This is a clear demonstration of how the Paralympic Games are reaching an increasing number of nations and athletes across the globe and for ParalympicsGB to remain up there as one of the very best nations is an extraordinary achievement.
It is also a huge testament to the role of the British Paralympic Association in providing the best possible planning, care and opportunity in Tokyo, and to the National Governing Bodies of sports and the unwavering support they give to athletes, particularly through the past 18 months of challenge and concern.
Our vision for the next 1000 medals
As a collective group across the Olympic and Paralympic family, there was also an important landmark achieved. When George Peasgood crossed the line to win silver in road cycling’s men’s C4 time trial it was not only a brilliant second medal for him at these Games, but the 1000th medal won across the Paralympic and Olympic Games, summer and winter, since the introduction of The National Lottery in 1997.
Every single person who plays The National Lottery should be extremely proud of this moment, without their support it simply wouldn’t be possible. I know what it means to be part of Team GB understanding that it is largely because of the support, generosity and encouragement of the British public that wild ambitions become possible. I cannot emphasise enough that there is something truly special about being a team fuelled by public support.
Looking forward we hope that the athletes who will win the next 1000 medals at Beijing, Paris, Milan‐Cortina, Los Angeles and beyond take inspiration from our Tokyo athletes. I have no doubt the future generations will continue to bring enjoyment and pride to the nation whilst using their own voices and passions to continue to drive positive social change.
I know that we won’t be able to predict everything – the pandemic was not something anyone expected when Rio handed the baton over to Tokyo in 2016. But what we do know is with new challenges come new opportunities, new stars, new sports, new records, new inspirations.
As we look to where the next 1000 medals come from, it is also worth a reminder that applications as part of our latest search for athletes of the future – From Home 2 The Games – closes at midnight on Monday 6 September.
British Paralympians in Tokyo have blazed a trail for the next generation, showcasing what is possible and paving the way for others to pursue their own aspirations. Through their performances, we have seen socially conscious people of immense talent and character display the extraordinary power of sport to lift a nation and to bring optimism to the world.
There may well be a slightly different feeling for everyone on the plane home – relief, disbelief, joy, disappointment, determination, sadness, confidence, defiance, pride, but for them all, regardless of how they are today, they are part of a special family forever.
They will always be a Paralympian and they will continue to inspire us long after the smoke of the Closing Ceremony fireworks settles. Each one of them should be immensely proud of what they’ve achieved.