Today marks a year to go until the Paralympic Games long jump final. Tokyo 2020 spoke to triple Paralympic gold medallist Markus Rehm about next year’s Games, his love of Tokyo and what it means to be an inspiration to the next generation.
When the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games take place next year, one of the undoubted stars will be double long jump and reigning 4x100m gold medallist Markus Rehm. Nicknamed “The Blade Jumper”, Rehm has taken the world of long jumping by storm, registering a mark of 8.48m that is not only a world record, but would also have been enough to win gold at the last two Olympic Games. Now, with Tokyo 2020 just a year away, Rehm has his sights set on a historic third long jump gold medal that would cement his place as a true Paralympic legend.
“That’s the biggest goal for me,” said Rehm in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020. “This year we have only two competitions - not very much - but I just try to use the time to train and to bring the third gold medal home.”
As with all athletes, Rehm’s training and prospects of competition have been disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but more than any physical impact, it is the mental aspect of the postponement of the Games that has had the most effect on him.
“I think this year is about mental strength. Physically, I’m able to jump alright, but I see myself struggling with the mental thing that there’s no big goal. It’s a nice goal to train for the Paralympic Games, but just small competitions… I think it’s a big challenge for us all, like a mental challenge,” Rehm explained.
Looking beyond Tokyo
As an athlete who is now entering the latter stages of his career (he recently turned 32), it might be easy to think that Rehm might consider retiring after the demands of a third Paralympics next year. But even though it’s something Rehm has contemplated, he is now taking a more measured approach to the decision, saying “I’m not sure yet… I always said that as long as I compete on a high level, I want to compete. And as long as I enjoy what I’m doing.”
And the postponement of the Games may ironically serve to prolong a career in which Rehm has won three Paralympic gold medals, four World Championship golds and five European golds.
“If you’d asked me after Rio, I would have told you ‘Yes, Tokyo will definitely be my last big event.’ But now it’s postponed until 2021, there will only be three years left until Paris, so... we’ll see! I have to listen to listen to my body. But as long as I enjoy what I’m doing, as long as I can keep up with a good level, I’ll try to keep doing it.
“I keep it open!”
2016 Getty Images
Setting new standards of excellence
Markus Rehm is the living embodiment of someone who has not let a physical impairment limit his potential. And if he is to inspire people in any way, it is in the fact that he does not let anyone else define what he can achieve.
“I don’t have to be the role model to follow, but I want to be the one who’s showing an option, an example. I show what can be,” the Göppingen-born athlete explained.
“But just don’t allow anybody else to tell you what you are able to do, or what you’re not able to do. I think If I told anybody when I started sports, 'One day I’m going to compete against Olympic athletes and I’m going to win,' everybody would not believe me. But I showed it’s possible. And if people see this and get inspired by this, I think it’s the best compliment.”
In fact, Rehm’s greatest source of pride comes from the fact that he is an example the younger generation, as was the case when a recent client of his named him as his greatest inspiration.
“I saw the other day an interview from a very small boy - he’s one of my clients, because I’m also a prosthetist, I build prostheses. So I met him when he was in the hospital and I built a prosthesis for him, and I saw an interview of him and they said ‘What is your biggest role model?’ and he wrote down my name."
“And, even now I get emotional about this, because I think this is the biggest compliment you can make to me if you tell me I have inspired somebody.”
It would be also great if the German record was held by a Paralympic athlete and not an Olympic athlete.
I think this would be maybe a little pinch to the Olympic community.
But you get the impression that the sky really is the limit for Rehm, whose current goals stretch further than the Paralympic competition at next year’s Games.
Could he perhaps break Mike Powell's 8.95m long jump world record that has stood unchallenged since 1991?
“I think 8 metres 50, that’s one other barrier that separates the great long jumpers from the very best. And I want to be one of the very best, so 8.50 is the next goal. Once I’m over 8.50, I think 8.54 is not that far, and this is the German record, which is 30 years old and I think it’s time to set a new date for the German record."
“And it would be also great if the German record was held by a Paralympic athlete and not an Olympic athlete. I think this would be maybe a little pinch to the Olympic community. And just a proof that we are on the same level as the Olympic athletes, and we don’t have to hide with our results behind anybody.”
I heart Tokyo
When the Paralympics do take place next year in Tokyo in an event that IPC President Andrew Parsons describes as a “historic moment for humankind”, Rehm will have a more personal reason to enjoy this momentous occasion. His love for the city of Tokyo.
“I just enjoy every time I go there, and to be honest I was really sad that I couldn’t go this year. I was there already five or six times and it was always nice to go there."
“This warm welcome, how they behave, how they communicate with you, I really enjoy. I have to say I also really love the cuisine in Japan… it’s amazing."
“My first trip to Japan, I came there for two weeks and I said I would like to eat something new every day, and it really worked out! And I enjoyed it."
“I think the first impression of Japan was very good and that makes me happy to come back every time.”
This is the connection.
We are together and not separate.
Connecting the Games
As someone who has broken down so many barriers in his career, it will perhaps come as little surprise that Rehm hopes for a greater connection between the Olympics and Paralympics in the future - perhaps even starting with a combined event to mark the handover between the two Games.
“If this would take part one day - and even if I’m old and grey and sitting on my sofa watching the Games - if I would see one day that there’s a relay between Olympic and Paralympic athletes, as a connection event, I think I would start crying, because this is something I have been talking about for so many years,” Rehm explained.
“I think it would be a great sign, because why do we have to stop the Olympic Games and open the Paralympic Games?"
“Like I said before, we have eight lanes, we have eight nations, we have two Olympic and two Paralympic athletes in each nation. And then we do a competition. We just get down the flame, symbolically, like the relay baton, and have a 4x100 relay and the winner is symbolically bringing back the flame and saying ‘now we continue.’
“You say, ‘this is the connection. We are together and not separate.' I think this would be a huge symbolic sign, and if I could see this any time, I think that would be just great.”
It is an idea that even IPC President Andrew Parsons seems to be on board with, as he explained in his recent interview with Tokyo 2020.
“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,” agreed Parsons.
“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.”