At the 2020 Paralympic Games that took place between 24 August and 5 September 2021, 537 events from 22 sports were contested, with badminton and taekwondo as new additions to the programme. As I am currently in Tokyo, I was lucky enough to watch the games as they were unfolding live on NHK and though I would have loved to have watched the events live and in person, the pandemic put paid to this, and so, as with the 2020 Olympic Games, the events took place with hardly any spectators in the stadiums. Only other athletes and the staff cheered them on.
Fifty seven years since the first Paralympic Games were held in Tokyo in 1964, social attitudes to disability in Japan have made tremendous strides. I remember when, a year after arriving in Tokyo in 1978, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t seen a disabled person. This was a culture shock, coming from Ghana where disabled people are everywhere in society, albeit often in terrible socioeconomic circumstances. Surely things can’t be that perfect in Japan, I thought.
When I enquired about this curious observation to people I knew, and found them laughing at my naivety, I realised the situation was more nuanced than I had imagined. I learned that many families kept disabled family members indoors or in institutions, and rarely let them out in public.
Since the 1990s, there have been incremental advancements in how publicly disability is dealt with in Japan, especially in big cities and towns. There have been great improvements in public transport to accommodate people with disabilities and to support their access and mobility, including the provision of elevators and wheelchair ramps. The awful practice of keeping disabled people indoors may well be a thing of the past.
However, prejudice against people with disabilities prevails in Japan, as in all countries including those with advanced economies, and this cannot easily be remedied by the Paralympic Games as an episodic outlet for showcasing what all human beings are capable of, through willpower, physical strength and, in some cases, technology.
This should remind us of the vision and ideals of human security, as articulated by the 2003 Commission on Human Security (CHS) report. It is designed to ensure freedoms for people and communities with a focus on three areas: freedom from want; freedom from fear; and freedom to live in dignity. The commission’s report also notes that its framework of empowerment engenders “strategies [that] enable people to develop their resilience to difficult situations”. What is perhaps immediately relevant to this discussion is the ideal of freedom to live in dignity, especially for those in vulnerable situations.
The following are some snapshots I witnessed from the games as they were broadcast on television, many of which included sweat, tears and sobs, filled with both human tragedy and dignity:
Nineteen-year-old Gabriel Geraldo dos Santos Araújo, who competed in the men’s 100 metres backstroke S2 Sport Class with no arms and disabled legs, used only his very short legs and torso to generate forward momentum in the pool. This extraordinary sportsman started the race by biting down on a towel to balance against the wall. Later, on the podium, in his Brazilian tracksuit he celebrated winning the silver medal by performing a spirited dance filled with human dignity.
The women’s T54 wheelchair 1500m race also produced great excitement, as the competitors displayed the enormous speed at which they could make their wheelchairs run, based on their technical ability and fitness. After a searing race, China’s Zhou Zhaoqian won the gold medal with a personal time of 3:27.63 in a stacked field, defeating Tatyana McFadden of the US, who had dominated the field for years. The fact that McFadden came fifth in the race shows how competitive and dynamic the field now is.
But how does a visually impaired person who would ordinarily walk with difficulty manage to thunder down the track at full speed with the objective of winning a race, while operating with the strict rule that the guide they’re tethered to must not cross the finishing line first? Cuba’s visually impaired sprinter, Omara Durand, did exactly that at the games, as she ran in sync with her Cuban guide.
The wheelchair basketball gold medal match between the US and Japan was also thrilling, as the US defended its title against a Japanese team that seemed determined to unseat the defending champions. Both teams drove their wheelchairs with such speed, dexterity, ferocity and fluency against mutual defensive plays that kept the scores close in a back-and-forth encounter, until in a late comeback the US broke through to defeat Japan 64-60.
Reflecting on his experiences, wheelchair tennis Paralympian Dylan Alcott offered an insight on Twitter into how Paralympic sports saved his life, noting “It was the best thing that ever happened to me”, and how he owes it so much. He hopes that what he and other Paralympians do will actually “…change perceptions along the way of what people think of … people with disabilities”, in ways that make them understand that “they can be a doctor, a lawyer, a mum, a dad, a teacher, an educator, politician, whatever it is”.
Indeed, the life disabled people live, especially in developing countries, is disturbing. In a 2015 BBC documentary, presenter Sophie Morgan, herself a wheelchair user, shared harrowing accounts of what life is like for most of the five million people with a disability in Ghana.
She noted that “for many of them there is almost no access to equipment, education, transport, healthcare or work” and, “as a result, many live in abject poverty”. In addition, there is the stigma attached to people with disabilities and their families and the shocking consequences of this stigma, including confinement and torture, which deny them basic dignity.
Through the Paralympics we can tell which countries are the best of the worst for people with disabilities, and we can see that, beyond abstract notions about the social rights of citizenship, it is the more wealthy economies that seem to be creating better life chances for their vulnerable citizens.
Although, according to the World Health Organization, 80% of people living with a disability live in developing countries, of the 4,537 athletes from the 163 countries that participated in the games, 2,093 were from just 11 countries, the rich and the relatively well off, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Italy, Russia and the US.
As James Carville Jr said, it’s the economy, stupid. DM