Another signpost on the way to Tokyo 2020 has arrived.
The one that often comes as an afterthought or an addendum to the conversation. Still, the Paralympic gathering 100 days from now is equally as significant as the Olympic one which precedes it.
And the principal characters, the athletes, are every bit as hopeful that the Games will take place in the face of the pandemic roadblock which stands in their way.
“The Paralympic Games have the power to bring about global hope, inspiration and change; things that are needed now more than ever,” said Canadian chef de mission Stephanie Dixon, a seven-time Paralympic champion in swimming and a member of Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
“It is vital to the Paralympic movement that athletes around the world gain access to sport again as soon as possible. If the Games can happen safely this summer, it could be the ray of light and hope that we have all been looking for.”
The summer Paralympics in Tokyo will be the largest in history from a sporting perspective. More than 4,500 athletes representing a record 170 countries are scheduled to compete in 22 sports and contest 540 medal events. Taekwondo and badminton will be making their debuts at these Games, which will be broadcast in prime time on North American television for the first time and be consumed on more platforms than ever before.
While the Paralympics are not nearly as lucrative a business proposition as the Olympics are, they represent a chance to reflect the purity of sport and create unprecedented awareness for people with a disability.
“The process of helping further the Paralympic movement is a process which will involve teamwork between Paralympic athletes all over the world,” said middle-distance runner Nathan Riech, the world champion and world record-holder in the T38 1,500 metres. “I believe if the Games do not go off, the Paralympic movement will take a hit.”
That said, Riech, who suffered a brain injury and right-side paralysis after a freak accident, is undaunted as he pursues his first Paralympic appearance.
The son of American javelin thrower Todd Riech, who competed at the 1996 Olympics and Canadian pole vaulter Ardin Tucker, he emphasized the belief that he can’t afford at this point to speculate on the likelihood of the Games happening or whether or not there will be fans in the stadiums.
“I have always dreamed of being in this spot,” Riech said. “My journey to the Games started the day I re-learned to walk in 2005. The way my performance mentality works is that I’m aware of the things that could hinder my performance, but I only focus on things that I can control. And fans being in the stadium is not something I can control.”
The intangible but raw emotion which spectators often experience when witnessing the Games first-hand has long been the currency of the Paralympic movement. The awareness and amazement at the sporting excellence on display can often be palpable.
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If there are empty stadiums in Tokyo, the impact of the Games could be diminished.
“Fans in the stands play a huge role in building the Games environment that Paralympic athletes would typically draw upon to feed their excitement and performances,” Dixon admitted.
“But the energy at the Games in Tokyo will be different and the athletes will have to draw from within rather than from without. Adversity and tough circumstances are no strangers to Paralympians, and we will see them rise and fight with everything they have.”
Riech views the next 100 days as an opportunity to live up to his own potential and which could also end up making a difference to the lives of others. He isn’t focusing on endorsement deals or personal wealth. As a Paralympian he has a different motive for making the trip to Tokyo.
“I think that sport heals and seeing someone going after a goal that is ambitious is inspiring,” he reckoned.
“This pandemic has brought so much bad, but with the bad there is always good. I hope Team Canada’s performances can inspire, heal, and bring a smile to the faces of the viewers.”
The nearly 150 Canadian athletes who Stephanie Dixon hopes to lead to Japan have all been imbued with a sense of mission and understanding of the importance of their journey. The Canadians won 29 medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and boast an exceptionally talented roster.
Superstars Aurelie Rivard and Katarina Roxon lead a strong swimming squad and 11-time world champion wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos is expected to shine in athletics. Arguably the finest wheelchair basketball player in the world and three-time Paralympic gold medallist Patrick Anderson returns to the fold after missing the 2016 Games in Rio.
Chance to make a difference
But according to Dixon, the success of these Paralympic Games extends far beyond Canadian medal production and instead has the chance to make a big difference to the world at large.
“Challenging times aren’t easy, but they also offer us hope and excitement for a better future,” she said. “We have never been more aware of the inequities and maltreatment occurring in sport, and it is offering us a chance to do better.
“Safety and inclusion are being woven into the values and priorities of sport in Canada, which will result in a healthier, stronger, and more successful sports system, one where everyone can thrive.”
To Dixon, the next 100 days are a time for Paralympians to prepare for the moment when they flex their muscles and demonstrate their power. It’s an ability they collectively possess to spark social change and enlightenment.
“In Tokyo we will see the Canadian flag raised, and we will hear our national anthem played,” she said. “But most importantly we will be moved by the breathtaking courage and spirit of our Canadian Paralympians as they offer performances of a lifetime through the most difficult of circumstances.”
With 100 days to go, it would seem that’s what the entire Paralympic movement is holding onto.
A window for the world, by whatever means, to gaze through and see passionate, ambitious, athletes compete in sport.
Pure and simple.