The 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, are almost here, bringing international sport back into the spotlight just a few short weeks after the Tokyo Olympics ended. Over 4,000 athletes will descend upon the Japanese capital for 12 days of sport with Paralympians old and new ready to compete on a global stage.
For the uninitiated, like the Olympics, all para athletes must qualify at a trials event or through another measured standard determined by the International Paralympic Committee. Beyond that, each sport has classifications that signify an impairment that the athletes live with daily to ensure fairness. For example, gold medalist David Brown is a T-11 sprinter in track and field, indicating low visual acuity (Brown himself is completely blind and will compete this year in the 100 and 200 meter races). Other classifications include limb deficiency, involuntary movement, muscle tension, and short stature. You can learn more about the system here.
It’s also worth checking out Rising Phoenix (on Netflix), which features several para athletes who will compete in Tokyo, including fencer Bebe Vio of Italy, sprinter Jonnie Peacock of Great Britain, and archer Matt Stutzman of Team USA.
The Paralympics kick off with an opening ceremony August 24th (live at 7 a.m. EST on NBCSN with a primetime broadcast at 7 p.m.). Coverage mostly takes place on the Olympic Channel and NBCSN daily, with broadcasts also slated to air on NBC over the weekend. You can also stream the Tokyo Paralympics online on Peacock, though you’ll need a Peacock Premium account (you can watch the 2020 Paralympics online free with Peacock’s 7-day free trial).
Just like the Olympics, it can be hard to whittle down the many storylines to keep an eye on from the cutting edge technology these athletes use to the inevitable political complications to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic (again, no spectators). Below are a few places to give yourself an advantage at the starting line.
New Sports and What’s Different From the Olympics
Among the nearly two dozen sports in the Paralympics program, two are making their debut this year. First is badminton, for which there are singles, doubles, and mixed disciplines in both standing and wheelchair classifications. Second is taekwondo, in which athletes with arm amputations or limitations, attempt to score points by kicking their opponent. Three-time world champion Leani Ratri Oktila (SL4) of Indonesia will go for one of the first-ever Paralympic gold medals in the former while 2017 world champion Evan Medell (K44) represents Team USA in the latter. In addition, canoe spring welcomes the addition of va’a boats, which are approximately 2 meters longer than a kayak with added float on the side to maintain balance (the boats are originally from Polynesia, so think: Moana).
There are also two sports solely played during the Paralympics. Boccia is similar to bowling and curling, with athletes (generally those with motor function impairment) trying to get the bocce ball as close to a target as possible. Goalball, played with blindfolds, features two teams of three as they attempt to roll a ball into their opponents net, who try to block it from going in with their bodies. The ball has bells inside it so the athletes can hear it coming.
Even the sports adapted from the Olympic program look different. Competitions like wheelchair fencing and wheelchair rugby (sometimes called “murderball”) bring a whole new level of excitement to a game normally played on foot. Frequently involving attack moves, the addition of athletes on wheels adds an element of speed — and danger — to the Paralympics that’s very enjoyable to watch.
For the first time ever, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) will give Paralympians the same amount of money for winning medals as Olympians — a big step for inclusiveness.
There are plenty of opportunities for Team USA to defend their titles from the 2016 Games in Rio. Looking to repeat are the women’s wheelchair basketball team, with nine out of 12 players making their Paralympic debut to infuse some new blood. It’s the opposite scenario for the defending men’s team (who will be wearing the same jerseys as their Olympic counterparts), with eight of the 12 men returning to the court. Elsewhere, the women’s sitting volleyball team also hopes to hold onto their spot at the top of the podium.
A number of well-known Paralympians are looking to add more hardware to their collections, with 23-time medalist — 13 of them gold — Jessica Long (S8, SB7, SM8) jumping back into the pool. (You’ve likely seen her in that tearjerker of a commercial by Toyota about an adopted girl from Siberia.) Over on the track, TikTok favorite Hunter Woodall (T62) will compete in the 100 and 400 meter sprints while 17-time medalist Tatyana McFadden (T54) attends her sixth Paralympic games, going for gold in a number of wheelchair races at the National Stadium.
Look for some athletes to make the switch to a different event, too. Seven-time medalist Brad Snyder (PT5) makes his paralympic debut in the triathlon after focusing on swimming. Oksana Masters (H5) has already won medals in rowing and nordic skiing, and comes to Tokyo aiming to be one of the few athletes to win medals in three different Paralympic sports after just missing the podium in Rio for track cycling. On the flip side, athletes such as Leanne Smith (S4, SB4, SM4) – who recently called out the ESPY Awards for not inviting athletes with impairments to the ceremony — are making their debut.
There’s a second chance for host nation glory in tennis as Shingo Kunieda (open division) is ranked Number One in the world for wheelchair singles tennis. Japan also has a chance to win medals in canoe sprint, track and field, badminton, swimming, goal ball, judo, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball, and more.
Just like at the Olympics, a record number of LGBTQ athletes will participate in the Paralympics, with at least 29 out players from eight countries vying for medals in sports like wheelchair basketball, rowing, and cycling.
One of the best parts about these Games for fans is watching the athletes adapt to their impairment in inventive ways. There’s table tennis players like Ibrahim Hamadtou (class 6) of Egypt who uses his mouth to hold a paddle. And it’s not just those who are adapting to using their bodies. For the second Paralympics in a row, a refugee team will compete together under the IPC flag. While Rio welcomed two paralympians, Tokyo will see six in their contingent, coming from Syria, Afghanistan, Burundi, and Iran.Also look out for stories from the frontline to the playing field — a number of international players were doctors in the fight against Covid-19.