How to Get the Most Out of the Paralympics

With their rivalries, upsets, and superhuman athletic feats, and moments of sportsmanship that can make a rugby player cry, the roller coaster Tokyo 2020 Olympics stoked our enthusiasm for the return of global sports. On August 24, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympics will begin, and they promise to be just as exciting and dramatic, with a backdrop of pandemic-induced drama. It’s easy to view these games as the summer’s biggest sporting event if witnessing dedicated athletes realize their dreams brings you some joy amid all the uncertainty.

The 1964 Paralympic Summer Games were held in Tokyo for the second time, and 378 athletes competed across nine sports. Around 4400 athletes will compete in 22 sports for gold this year, representing about 170 countries. Swimming and track and field are familiar events; boccia and goalball are paralympic-only events.

They replace sailing and 7-a-side soccer, and will debut in badminton and taekwondo respectively. A circular indentation on the rim of this year’s medals (one on gold, two on silver, and three on bronze) will assist visually impaired athletes. With COVID-19 still surging in Japan, most of the stands will be empty (though athletes, especially during goalball, will not be troubled by this since the jingling ball will signal position to visually-impaired athletes).

Stay tuned for more coverage as we get closer to the games.

History of Paralympics

A British doctor named Ludwig Guttman founded the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948 for spinal cord injured veterans after fleeing Nazi Germany after World War II. There was a single event (archery) held during the Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies in London.

A group of Dutch veterans started an international competition that now trails only the Olympics in terms of scope and size. The Summer Paralympics debuted in 1960 in Rome. Every four years since, winter and summer versions have taken place a few weeks after the Olympics conclude.

Watching the Paralympics

At 7 a.m. EST on Tuesday, NBC will debut its prime-time coverage of the Paralympics. NBC, NBC Sports Network, and the Olympic Channel will broadcast over 200 live and delayed events, while 1,000 additional hours will be enabled to stream through NBC’s streaming services. You can find a full schedule of events and the broadcast schedule here.

System of classifications

All Paralympic sports competition is based on the Paralympic classification system: it determines eligibility and leveled the playing field. It is important to determine winners based on performances, fitness, and skills in each event, given the diversity of impairments. As an example, players in goalball wear glasses to share the same competitive advantage even though their visual acuity is different.

It is determined by ten impairments including: limb deficiency, leg length difference, short stature, muscle tension, uncoordinated movement, involuntary movements, vision impairment, and cognitive impairment.

The layers of classification can be complex, and are often customized for each sport. Track and field, for instance, offers 32 different classes for each event, ranging from T/F11, T/F12, and T/F13 (for athletes with different levels of vision impairment) to T/F34 (for athletes who compete in wheelchairs). Four types of cycling exist: cycling (C), handcycling (H), tricycle (T), and tandem (B). The severity of impairment is determined by the numbering of the subclass (C1, C2, C3, C4). The classification of tandems is not standardized, because there are sighted pilots with B1, B2, and B3 tandems which compete together. (Guides or pilots share medals in sports requiring them.)

In other sports, such as basketball, different players are rewarded according to their level of ability, which affects the point value.

The classification of sports in the Paralympics is available here.

Watch out for these athletes

Among the 234 athletes on the U.S. Paralympic roster are 129 returning athletes and 51 champions. The brightest stars on Team USA are listed below.

Theodora McFadden

She has already won 17 Paralympic medals, including six in Rio, despite being severely paralyzed from the waist down from spina bifida since birth. A wheelchair marathon grand slam (London, Boston, New York, and Chicago) was the highlight of her 2013 season. Since she began “scooting” around in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia, to keep up with friends, McFadden has come a long way. In Tokyo, she’ll compete in a variety of events, including the 100-m, 400-m, 800-m, 1,500-m, 5,000-meter event, and marathon wheelchair race. McCadden also co-produced the Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix, featuring nine athletes.

Theodora Long

Jessica Long has won 23 medals from Team USA, 13 of them gold, and has become a dominant force in the pool. Her legs were amputated below the knee when she was a child because of fibular hemimelia. This occurred shortly after her adoption by an American family. She got her start swimming in her grandparents’ pool, where she pretended to be a mermaid. Now, after training for years with Michael Phelps, she has a new nickname: “Aquawoman.” Look for her to win again in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, 100-meter breaststroke, 100-meter butterfly, and 200-meter individual medley.

Alyssa Seely

He was a national-ranked triathlete until a diagnosis of chiari malformation, basilar invagination, and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome led to neurological difficulties, brain and spine surgeries, and eventually an amputation below the knee on his left leg. Triathlon’s Rio debut earned her a gold medal, which she’ll defend in Tokyo.

Bradley Snyder

An ex-captain of the American swim team. A Naval Academy graduate, Snyder was injured in Afghanistan by an explosive device. His limbs were not damaged, but one of his eyes had to be removed. In the same year he lost his vision, he won the men’s 100m freestyle, S11, at the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Currently, he is training for the Tokyo Olympics triathlon.

Theodore Brown

Together with his guide, Jerome Avery, David Brown holds the world record for the 100 meters (T11, 2014). Olympic gold medalists called themselves “BrAvery” and won the 100 meter event in Rio. They remain medal favorites in Tokyo, despite the pandemic disrupting their training regime and requiring close proximity.

Master Oksana

The Ukrainian nuclear disaster occurred three years before masters was born; it is likely to have caused the birth defects that eventually led to his amputating both legs and replacing all of his fingers with webbed ones. But she’s more than just a one-season master now: Her summer portfolio includes gold in Nordic skiing in Pyeongchang, before adding hand-cycling ahead of Rio, where she missed out on the podium in road (4th) and track (5th). Summer gold could finally match winter gold in Tokyo.

Stockwell, Melissa

As a result of a roadside bomb explosion next to her vehicle, Melissa Stockwell lost a limb in active combat in 2004. In 2008, she became the first Iraq War veteran to qualify for the Beijing Paralympics following her awarding of the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. Paratriathlete Allysa Seely, who she will compete against in Tokyo, took bronze in Rio behind Hailey Danze, another Team USA member.

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