With a year to go until the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, President of the International Paralympic Committee Andrew Parsons talked about the challenges of re-organising the Games, his hopes for next year and how Tokyo 2020 will be a "historic moment for humankind"
On 24 August 2021, the world will unite to celebrate the beginning of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. 539 events will be competed across 22 different sports, as athletes from across the globe meet in Tokyo to showcase the very best of para sport. When the event finally does take place - having been postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic - IPC President Andrew Parsons believes it will be the catalyst to "build a new world", a symbol that we have left the pandemic behind and a celebration of "sport and peace and brotherhood".
How difficult have the last few months been in terms of re-organising the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games for next year?
Andrew Parsons (AP): I think it was really difficult. You have to replan everything now. It’s not from scratch because so much work has been done in the last few years, but to try to secure all the venues, to first of all agree all the principles with Tokyo 2020, with the Japanese authorities, with our partners at the IOC. So what are the principles that are going to drive the preparations for the Games? What will these Games look like next year, so it’s safe?
And of course, we have been working in one direction for five to six years, and then we need to change many things and even change the approach. So yeah, it is a lot of work, but I think it could be the blueprint for the future in some way, because we are reducing, down-scaling. So in any case it’s a very worthwhile exercise… because we can use the concepts we’re using here in terms of downsizing and focusing on what is absolutely essential to the Games.
So are there benefits you have been able to take from the postponement?
(AP): Yes, I think that’s exactly the thing. Because of the pandemic, because of the situation we are in, we are trying to focus on what is essential to deliver the Games. So, the fundamentals. In this case we have identified more than 200 opportunities to try to save money and this will be beneficial for the next organisers as well.
I think it can be a model to follow for next editions of the Games, but of course with more time, without having to change in the last year of preparation.
I think this can be beneficial. It can be the model that we’ll follow for the Paralympic Games in the future.
With everything going on in the world right now, what will the Opening Ceremony next year mean to you?
(AP): It will mean way more than only sport. I think it will be a symbol that we have left the pandemic behind, that we have faced this outbreak - this common threat, a common enemy as a species - and that we have won now.
So I think it will mean a lot, and I believe that we talk a lot about the “new normal”, what the post pandemic world will be. But at the moment we are thinking a little bit about ourselves, how we can stay healthy, our families, the people we love.
And I believe that after the pandemic, people will look back and reflect . And I do believe we will learn from this situation. We will learn that we may need to change the relationship we have with this planet. We need to have a different attitude, and I believe the Games will be the catalyst for that. I believe that, because the Games bring people together they are a very strong celebration of sport and peace and brotherhood.
So it’s the moment when humanity gets together in celebration of everything that is positive and everything that unites us. When it comes to the Paralympics, it is the moment where disability is celebrated and valued - the only moment in humanity when this happens. So I do believe that can be a catalyst.
It will be the moment when people will start to look back at the pandemic and say, ‘look, the way of the old normal has led us to this’. So we need to build a new world. We need to build a new normality. And I think the Games will be the catalyst for that. Now it’s time to do it differently, and it will mean so much, not only for fans, for athletes around the world - but for humanity.
So I think when we are all together for the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics and the Paralympics it will be a historic moment for humankind.
What message would you like to send to the athletes as we mark one year to go until the Paralympic Games?
(AP): What I would like to say to the athletes is, first of all, trust us. We are doing the best we can to offer the best possible platform for them to compete next year, to shine and send a very positive message to the world.
So I understand the anxiety. I understand the uncertainty and the doubt, and that at the same time, they need to be prepared for the biggest competition of their lives.
And it’s not easy, but we’re doing everything we can as the IPC, IOC, Japanese society, Tokyo 2020 to put together great Games under the circumstances we are facing at the moment.
So I just want to say to them, be strong, because we will be together at the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo in one year’s time.
Two new sports will be making their debut at Tokyo 2020. Which one are you most looking forward to seeing?
(AP): Well, we have two new sports, para badminton and taekwondo and I think they’re two amazing sports.
In para badminton they cater for many different types of disability, so you’ll have amputees, you’ll have wheelchair athletes and more. It’s incredible action, so I’m really looking forward to it.
The first time I saw it on a multi-sport level was last year in Lima at the Parapan American Games, and it was incredible.
There was this moment when the Peruvian guy won the gold medal and it was incredible. It gives me goosebumps just remembering that afternoon, because of the crowd and the excitement of the sport - and it’s because of the sport that the crowd got super excited.
It was an amazing display of sport, and that’s what brought all the people together.
And para taekwondo is a martial art for amputees. So in terms of the level of skill - how fast they are - it’s an amazing sport and it’s incredible to watch.
So I’m really looking forward to these two new sports making their debut at the Paralympic Games.
It has long been an aim of the IPC to increase female participation in para sports. Where do you feel you are at the moment in terms of gender equality?
(AP): We are not there yet. We are not where we want to be. We want it to be 50/50, but we have progressed a lot. We have created more opportunities for female athletes together with International Federations across multiple sports. One of the guiding principles of the Paralympic Games is to offer more opportunities for female athletes. So our board is very much focused on that.
So everything we approve in terms of events programmes, sport programmes, we have that as a focus, to increase female opportunities.
We are not where we want to be. We are not 50/50 yet, but we will get there.
Two refugees competed under the Paralympic flag in Rio. Will there be a similar team at Tokyo 2020?
(AP): Yes. And a bigger team.
We want to have more athletes in the refugee team, and maybe for more sports. We are working with the federations to identify these athletes, where they are in which sports from different parts of the world.
Of course we had two athletes, we want to increase this number, as this number is too small. So yes, we are going to have a refugee team, we are very excited about that. We are appointing a very strong supporting team for them, so we want them to compete at their best. So we will provide the best infrastructure for the athletes, so they only think about training and preparing under the circumstances we are facing.
But we are very excited about that project for next year.
What do you think about awareness of the Paralympic movement right now, particularly in countries where they may have traditionally looked down on people with impairments?
(AP): I think the awareness of Paralympic sports is increasing worldwide, the numbers show that. And of course every two years with the winter and summer Paralympics it helps to increase that.
And it’s challenging perceptions, even in countries with a record of ignoring this part of the population, of not treating them equally.
I think that sport is helping to change society, especially with the kids. One good thing about sport is that it communicates easily with kids and they are the future decision makers in their countries. Not only the leaders of the countries, the politicians, but they are the future businessmen and businesswomen, the future owners of shops, restaurants, employers, employees... so they will change the way people in their own society see people with disabilities.
That’s why we are targeting the kids, the youth. Because it’s easier to get to them before society gets to them with different perceptions, preconceived ideas, with prejudice.
So the earlier we can get to them, we can infuse them with Paralympic sports, helping to change mentalities and say, ‘Look, these guys can do what they want. They are top athletes, a top businessman, a top friend, a top father, a top mother. They can do whatever they want, they are like everyone else'.
Disability is a characteristic, it should not be a label.
Some say ‘she’s disabled’. No, she’s a woman. A nice woman. She’s a good mother, good professional. Yeah, she has some things that are not that positive, like each and every one of us. And yes, she moves around in a wheelchair.
So I think that when we are able to make people understand that the disability is only a characteristic, we should not label a person, we will be where we want.
But I think it has changed a lot, even in nations that in the past were even refusing to host events for persons with disabilities, they have embraced the Paralympic Games, the Paralympic Movement. So I think we are making some good strides here.
But, we still have a long way to go.
Markus Rehm (triple Paralympic gold medallist) has suggested that in the future we could see a combined event with Olympic and Paralympic athletes taking part together. Do you think this could one day be a reality?
(AP): I think the sky’s the limit when it comes to our partnership with the Olympic movement and the IOC. The relationship is really good and we are open to different ideas. So why not in the future have a combined event like this?
I always think we should have the Olympics and the Paralympics as separate events like they are now. They are part of the same big, flexible world of sport that hits the ground every two years in summer or winter.
But to have some combined event, you know, to show some integration, to send a very strong message, I think it will be absolutely a good idea.
Why not have some integrated events, to push, promote and send a very strong message of inclusion and integration. And anything that comes from Markus is normally a good idea.
What do you think about the Rising Phoenix Netflix documentary?
(AP): We couldn’t be more excited about it. I remember when Greg Nugent, who was the mind behind the project, came to us. He gave me the concept and when he showed me the concept of the documentary and the level of what he wanted to do, I immediately said to him, ‘Where do I sign?’
And the final product is incredible. The stories of these nine Paralympians are just incredible stories. Some of them could be a bit disturbing in showing some elements of mankind that we don’t like, but they used a difficult moment in their lives, and made that choice to become an athlete, a high performance athlete, an elite athlete…
And in many cases, sport is what helps them to embrace their disability and then move forward with it. And then they understand it’s just a part of who they are. It’s not who they are. It’s only a part of their characteristics.
And the soundtrack - it’s amazing. A rap that was delivered by three artists with disabilities. So we could not be more excited about it. We can’t wait for the 26th of August.