Live Updates: The Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony
Today we're focused on the Paralympics Opening Ceremony in Tokyo, which is getting prime-time coverage for the first time and has a record number of athletes participating. Here's what you need to know as the Games get underway:
Photos: See the highlights of the ceremony.
Representation: Afghanistan's athletes can't make it out of the country due to the turmoil there. But their flag did wave in today's ceremony. And the refugee delegation opened the Parade of Athletes, in a nod to the games' founder.
— The Morning Edition live blog team
(Dana Farrington, Joe Hernandez, Carol Ritchie, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Casey Noenickx)
Some Of The Paralympic Events And Athletes To Watch
The Tokyo Paralympic Games are officially underway, and will run until Sept. 5.
Hopefully you've gotten a glimpse of the opening ceremony — and if not, you can catch it again tonight on NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET, which will lead into live event coverage. All told, the Games will feature 539 events across 22 sports.
So what should you be tuning into over the next dozen days? Here's the full schedule, and a couple suggestions of events and athletes to watch:
Badminton and Taekwondo make their Paralympic debut
These are the first Games to include badminton and taekwondo, which is the Paralympics' first full-contact sport ever. Badminton events start on Sept. 1, with medal events beginning Sept. 4. You can catch taekwondo starting on Sept. 2.
Highly-decorated U.S. swimmer Jessica Long looks to medal again
Long has racked up 23 career medals since her Paralympic debut in 2004 (at age 12), Team USA notes. She took home gold in the 400-meter freestyle in her first three Games, and is looking to medal again in that event on Aug. 31.
Six-time Paralympian Tatyana McFadden will hit the track
Team USA calls McFadden its "undisputed queen of the track." The wheelchair racer is a 17-time medalist in several events, including Nordic skiing in 2014. And while she's won many of the world's Marathon Major races, she hasn't yet claimed a Paralympic gold medal. She'll be trying for it on Sept. 5.
Seasoned athletes are competing in new events
Twelve U.S. athletes have competed in more than one Paralympic sport. Several are competing in new events this year.
Kendall Gretsch, a two-time Paralympic gold medalist in Nordic skiing, will compete with the U.S. paratriathlon team in Tokyo — alongside Brad Snyder, the legendary swimmer with five Paralympic gold medals in that sport. Snyder's race is Aug. 28 and Gretsch's is the following day.
Oksana Masters won a bronze medal in rowing in 2012, then seven more medals as a cross-country skier and biathlete. These are her second games as a handcyclist, and she hopes it will be her first medal in the sport. (Team USA notes that the only other U.S. athlete with three sports to their name is cross-country skier, biathlete and marathoner Aaron Pike — who is also her boyfriend.) There's more than one power couple at this Olympics!
Plus, U.S. athlete Blake Haxton will compete in two sports: rowing (as he did in Rio 2016) and sprint canoe.
The six athletes responsible for legendary podium sweeps in Rio are back
U.S. athletes swept the podium three times in 2016: track stars McFadden, Amanda McGrory and Chelsea McClammer did twice, and Allysa Seely, Hailey Danz (nee Danisewicz) and Melissa Stockwell took all the medals in the inaugural paratriathlon event. All six are gearing up for competition in Tokyo.
The Cauldron Is Lit With The Paralympic Torch
The Paralympic torch traveled to Tokyo all the way from Stoke Mandeville, Great Britain, where the Paralympic Games were born.
The torch relay started on Aug. 12, with the guiding message of "Share Your Light," an encouragement for people to come together, according to the Tokyo Organizing Committee.
"This expresses the sentiment that the light emitted from these new encounters will merge together to illuminate a society in which people live in harmony and cooperate mutually," according to the committee's website.
With the cauldron alight, the games have officially begun.
The Ceremony Is An Ode To Flying Against Headwinds
The opening ceremony is an ode to movement, even in the face of headwinds. At the center of the story is a one-winged plane played by a 13-year-old, according to the NBC announcers.
Throughout the performance, she is shown what is possible by other characters, even when she doesn't think she can fly.
The display culminates in a light growing within the little plane so that she has the confidence to symbolically fly. The message "We have wings" appears on the stage at the end.
The storyline reflects the challenges of the ceremony itself, being delayed a year because of the pandemic, and the triumphs of the athletes themselves.
In addition, NBC said many of the performers had never performed before, including the central character.
This Is The Paralympics' First Year On Prime Time
Despite their long history, the Paralympics haven't gotten prime-time coverage until now.
NBC is set to air more than 1,200 hours of programming across its TV and digital channels in the days ahead (compared to some 70 hours of total coverage during the 2016 Rio Games, the Associated Press reports).
To learn more about why it's taken so long and what to expect this year, check out this conversation on 1A from NPR and WAMU.
Badminton And Taekwondo Make Their Paralympic Debut In Tokyo
Two of the 22 summer sports sanctioned by the International Paralympic Committee are new to the games: badminton and taekwondo.
Although the IPC announced badminton would become an official sport in 2015, it is only making its debut this year.
Athletes are sorted into six sport classes: two wheelchair classes and four standing classes. There are men’s and women’s singles as well as men’s, women’s and mixed doubles.
Most of the rules for para badminton are the same as the able-bodied version of the sport, according to the organizing committee. The height of the net is also the same, standing at just over 5 feet.
Para badminton athletes use competition wheelchairs with special modifications for the sport, such as a low backrest to enable more shots as well as extra wheels to prevent overturning.
Taekwondo will be the first full-contact Paralympic sport ever.
Developed in 2006, para taekwondo has the same rules as its Olympic counterpart with some changes for safety.
Kicks to the head are banned, and punches to the body won’t count toward a competitor’s score, “as athletes have different capacities to block,” the organizing committee said.
Instead para taekwondoins, as they are called, can rack up additional points by landing more challenging kicks, such as a turn kick or a spinning kick.
Meet Olympic Power Couple Hunter Woodhall And Tara Davis
One notable member of Team USA's delegation is Hunter Woodhall, a 22-year-old sprinter with two Paralympic medals under his belt already. He's also the first double amputee to earn a Division I track and field scholarship. But you may know him better as one-half of a track and field power couple.
His girlfriend, Tara Davis, competed in the Tokyo Olympics earlier this summer, where she placed sixth in the women's long jump. (Here's the sweet message Woodhall shared on Instagram after her event.)
The two met four years ago at a track meet in Iowa. As Elle reports, they were drawn to each other immediately, and have been together ever since — dating long-distance for years and then quarantining together during COVID-19.
Along the way, they've built a considerable following on social media, where they post about their lives, relationship and blossoming athletic careers. Their YouTube channel has more than 320,000 subscribers and they boast some 615,000 Instagram followers between them.
The couple didn't overlap in Tokyo, due to the timing of the Games and pandemic restrictions. They told CBS News last month that not being able to cheer each other on in-person has been among the tougher parts of the competitions, which they're otherwise very excited about.
"Obviously, like we're shooting for gold, but at the end of the day, a medal at the Games is paramount to any other athletic achievement in my mind, so I'm just happy to be representing our country and experience it together and then putting a cap on a really, really amazing season," Woodhall said.
Woodhall — who won the silver in the 200m and bronze in the 400m — will race in the 400m and 100m in Tokyo.
What The Paralympics Opening Ceremony Looks Like
Athletes from around the world wound their way through Tokyo's Olympic Stadium on Tuesday, wearing masks and waving to a largely empty stadium, accompanied by performers and upbeat music. Here are some of the sights from the event.
Team USA Makes An Entrance
Team USA has entered building, coming toward the end of the Parade of Athletes, as the U.S. is hosting one of the next Olympic and Paralympic Games, in Los Angeles in 2028.
Melissa Stockwell and Chuck Aoki are holding the flag. Stockwell is a veteran and a Parlympic bronze-medalist. Aoki is a two-time Paralympic medalist and member of the Athletes' Advisory Council. Read more about them here.
These Paralympic Athletes Are Pushing For Equity
Several Team USA athletes are also pushing for more equity and access when it comes to even being able to participate in these events. Here are some of the causes they've been speaking out about.
Barriers for women athletes, especially moms
NPR's Leila Fadel reported this story about the female athletes speaking up in support for maternity leave, about the challenges of breastfeeding while training and sharing their experiences with separation anxiety and lacking access to childcare during the actual Games.
Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix — who slammed her sponsor, Nike, in 2018 for trying to cut her pay after she became a mom — actually helped establish a $200,000 fund that offers child care grants to moms who are professional athletes. More on that here.
This year presented a host of unique challenges for parents, forcing many to make the tough choice to leave their kids at home due to coronavirus restrictions.
Pandemic restrictions add unusual complications
Becca Meyers, a Paralympic swimmer widely favored to win gold in Tokyo, withdrew from the Games earlier this summer after being told she couldn't bring a personal care assistant to Japan.
Meyers, who is deaf and blind, said officials did not take her and other athletes' needs into account when they limited the number of personnel allowed in the U.S. delegation.
"I would love to go to Tokyo," Meyers told The Washington Post, which first reported her withdrawal. "Swimming has given me my identity as a person. I've always been Becca the Swimmer Girl. I haven't taken this lightly. This has been very difficult for me. [But] I need to say something to effect change, because this can't go on any longer."
And for a personal take, check out this column from member station WBUR — contributor Aimee Christian, whose daughter needs a personal care attendant, writes that "Swimmer Becca Meyers' Ordeal Shows Even The Paralympics Doesn't Listen To Disabled People."
U.S. Paralympic And Olympic Medalists Are Earning The Same Amount For The 1st Time
U.S. Paralympians who win medals in Tokyo will earn the same as Olympians in Tokyo, thanks to a 2018 decision by the U.S. Olympic Committee board.
The move gave Paralympic athletes a 400% increase for each medal win, finally putting them at parity with U.S. Olympians.
The Opening Ceremony Kicks Off With The Parade Of Athletes
Athletes from around the world are making their way through Tokyo's Olympic Stadium to kick off this year's Paralympic games.
The "Parade of Athletes" was lead by the Refugee Paralympic Team, a six-member delegation that organizers say represents "the more than 82 million people around the world who have been forced to flee war, persecution, and human rights abuses, 12 million of whom live with a disability."
(The Paralympics actually have their roots in a 1948 competition started by a refugee — Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish neurologist who fled Nazi Germany before the onset of World War II.)
Countries' delegations are marching through a largely empty stadium, wearing face masks and waving to the cameras as upbeat music plays. The teams range in size from a couple to a couple dozen athletes.
The U.S. will be among the last teams to enter, since it's hosting one of the next Olympic and Paralympic Games (Los Angeles in 2028). More on Team USA's flag bearers here.
The Tokyo Paralympic Games Have The Most Athletes — And The Most Women — In History
If growing your roster were a Paralympic sport, this year’s games would win gold.
There are 4,403 athletes taking part in the international competition getting underway today, according to the organizing committee for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
That bests the previous record for athletes competing in the Paralympics of 4,328 set in Rio in 2016.
It comes even as several teams have had to drop out of the games this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Afghanistan’s Paralympic team also had to cancel its trip to Tokyo amid the upheaval in the country.
“To break the record for the highest number of athletes at Tokyo 2020 is testament to the tremendous work of all [National Paralympic Committees] and International Federations who have gone above and beyond the call of duty during the most testing of times,” said International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons in a statement.
Among those competing in the Tokyo Paralympic Games, 1,853 are women, another record. Previously, Rio 2016 had the most female athletes with 1,671.
“It is absolutely fantastic news that more women than ever before will compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and a lot of credit needs to go to NPCs and International Federations for ensuring this continued growth in numbers,” Parsons added.
“Although we are still someway short of gender parity, we are heading in the right direction with the number of women competing at the Paralympics almost doubling since the Sydney 2000 Paralympics.”
The Difference Between The Olympics, Paralympics And Special Olympics
What do the Paralympics have in common with the Olympic games? And what do either of them have to do with the Special Olympics?
For answers, we're turning to Paralympic swimmer Anastasia Pagonis. The 17-year-old Long Island native has a whopping 2 million followers on TikTok, and uses her platform to educate others about visual impairment and Paralympic sport.
She breaks down some of the key differences between the Paralympics and Special Olympics here:
The Olympics and Paralympics exist side-by-side
As we mentioned earlier, the Olympics and Paralympics have different governing bodies but for decades have been held in tandem — in the same host city in the same year.
They really are parallel events: The word "Paralympic" includes the Greek preposition "para," meaning "beside."
In Paralympic sports, athletes are grouped together by "the degree of activity limitation" resulting from their impairment: Here's more on that from the International Paralympic Committee.
The Paralympics and Special Olympics differ in three key ways
Meanwhile, the Special Olympics differ from the Paralympics in three main areas: the structure of their organizations, the disability categories of the athletes and the criteria and philosophy under which they participate.
The Special Olympics provides training and competition year-round, and holds World Games every two years (alternating with summer and winter events). The most recent Special Olympics World Games was held in Abu Dhabi in 2019, and the next are scheduled for 2022 in Kazan, Russia.
The Special Olympics welcomes all athletes with intellectual disabilities, of all ability levels, ages 8 and up. Paralympic athletes must fulfill certain criteria and meet qualifying standards in order to be eligible.
New Zealand Skips The Paralympics Opening Ceremony As COVID Rages In Tokyo
As the Paralympic Games open today, the New Zealand team announced that its athletes will skip the opening ceremony due to COVID-19 worries.
Japan has been under a state of emergency since July 12, just days before the start of the Summer Olympics on July 23. But COVID cases have surged in the country since then, with new daily cases increasing more than tenfold to about 5,000 in Tokyo and 25,000 nationwide, the Associated Press reports.
New Zealand went under a strict lockdown after seven positive cases were discovered last week.
In a statement released early today, Paralympics New Zealand explained, "Our team will not be attending as we continue our commitment to our Covid-19 Operating Principles and Guidelines, aimed at keeping our team as safe as possible."
According to Adelaide Now, Paralympics organizers have reported 236 COVID-19 cases linked to the Paralympics so far, mostly among staff and contractors, but also including six athletes.
Afghan Athletes Can't Compete, But Their Flag Is There
In a show of solidarity, the Afghanistan flag was displayed in the Paralympics opening ceremony.
Afghanistan's Paralympic team is unable to compete since the Taliban took control of the country and airports have been slammed with people frantically trying to flee.
Andrew Parsons, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, said Monday a representative of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees would carry the nation's flag for the opening ceremony.
As NPR's Bill Chappell has reported, it's the first time Afghanistan won't be represented at the Paralympics since the Sydney Games in 2000 — when the country was banned from competing due to the Taliban's oppressive treatment of women.
How David Brown Went From 'Living In Fear' To 'The World's Fastest Blind Runner'
David Brown is known as the world’s fastest completely blind runner. He was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease at 15 months old, which led him to completely lose his sight by age 13.
Brown says was "living in fear for a number of years" — until he discovered his passion for running. After winning an essay contest and attending the 2008 games in Beijing, he knew he wanted to compete himself.
Paralympic runners train and compete alongside sighted guides. At the Rio Games in 2016, Brown and his partner Jerome Avery ran 10.99 in the men’s 100-meter dash to take home the gold (that was the first year guides were awarded their own medals).
Now he’s preparing to race in Tokyo with a new partner, Moray Steward.
The two spoke to host Robin Young of Here & Now from NPR and WBUR about what it’s like to run together and what this competition means to them. Listen to their conversation here or read on for takeaways.
Brown made his way to running from another sport. He explains that he lost his left eye when he was 3, and lost vision in his right eye over time. He played basketball as a kid, but was increasingly getting injured because he couldn’t see the ball coming. “I took the opportunity to run on the playground, and realized I had some speed there,” he says.
He pursued his passion at the Missouri School for the Blind. Brown started at the school when he was 11, and it was there that he really started running track. That involved “hanging on to a clothesline-looking thing” to stay in a straight line, while pumping one arm and sprinting furiously.
He got to his first Paralympic games by writing about running. Brown was one of the 25 winners of an essay contest that got to attend the event in Beijing. He says he wrote about how he used sports to overcome obstacles, noting that as he grew up he struggled with depression and suicidal ideation.
It’s crucial to be in sync with your running partner. Steward says he doesn’t have to slow down when running with Brown, because he’s fast. The two are tethered by a piece of fabric wrapped around their fingers, and must run and pump their arms in sync. A 10- or 11-second race doesn’t require much speaking, Steward says, beyond the occasional cues.
It’s also an honor, Brown says. He notes that Paralympic runners can’t do what they do without guides like Steward, who could theoretically run solo but choose not to. He calls it “a great honor.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
How To Watch The Paralympics Opening Ceremony
A Brief History Of The Paralympics
Sports for athletes with an impairment have existed for more than a century, the International Paralympic Committee points out.
But it wasn’t until after World War II that the official Paralympics began to take shape, out of an effort to help the many veterans and civilians who were injured during that time.
German-British neurologist Dr. Ludwig Guttmann (who actually escaped from the Nazis) opened a spinal injuries center at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1944 at the request of the British government.
At that time in the U.K., "you were left in hospital to die because the assumption was that you wouldn't have anything to contribute back to society so you might as well be allowed to slip away," Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson, one of Britain’s most successful Paralympians, told NPR in 2012. Guttmann challenged that notion, she explained.
“Not only did he start this amazing sports movement, he revolutionized the treatment of spinal cord injuries. And so all through the years of evolution, we've had veterans who have competed.”Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson, a former wheelchair racer who is in the British House of Lords
The activities there grew in both scope and intensity. As the IPC put it, “in time, rehabilitation sport evolved to recreational sport and then to competitive sport.”
Four years later, as the 1948 Olympic Games kicked off in London, Guttmann organized an archery competition for wheelchair athletes. The Stoke Mandeville Games went international four years later when Dutch ex-servicemen joined in. They became the Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960, and have been held every four years ever since.
The Paralympic and Olympic games have taken place in the same host cities and venue since the Summer Games of 1988 and the Winter Games of 1992, thanks to an agreement between the IPC and the International Olympic Committee.
It’s also quite literally in the event’s name. The word “Paralympic” comes from the Greek preposition “para” (beside) and the word “Olympic,” meaning that the two games exist side-by-side.
Get To Know Team USA's Flag-Bearers
This is the first year that each nation competing in the Paralympic Games (and the Olympic Games) is allowed two individuals — a man and a woman — to carry their flag at the opening ceremony.
Team USA voted to give that honor to wheelchair rugby player Chuck Aoki and paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell. Here’s what you need to know about them, courtesy of the team’s website.
Aoki is a two-time Paralympic medalist and member of the Athletes’ Advisory Council.
The Minneapolis resident helped lead his team to a silver medal in Rio 2016 and a bronze medal at London 2012. He has been a representative on the Athletes’ Advisory Council — which aims to broaden communication between the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and active athletes — since 2017, and currently serves as a vice chair.
Aoki says he was inspired by the 2005 film Murderball to take up wheelchair rugby after playing wheelchair basketball for 11 years. He's also pursuing a Ph.D. in international relations and comparative politics at the University of Denver. Read more here.
Stockwell has a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Paralympic bronze medal.
A first lieutenant in the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division, Stockwell became the first female American soldier in history to lose a limb in active combat after her vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004, according to her official profile.
She later became the first Iraq War veteran to qualify for the Paralympic Games and competed in swimming in Beijing in 2008. She officially pivoted to triathlons the following year, and won three world titles before taking home a bronze medal at the inaugural Paralympic triathlon in Rio 2016.
Stockwell is also a co-founder of the Chicago-based Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club, a USA Triathlon Level I certified coach and a member of the board of directors for the Wounded Warriors Project, USA Triathlon Foundation and USA Triathlon Women’s Committee. She says she always has to eat gummy worms the night before a race.
What You Need To Know About Team USA
There are 240 U.S. athletes that make up Team USA in the Paralympic Games.
The group includes 21 athletes with military affiliations (three of whom are active duty). Its members range in age from 16 to 62. Twelve athletes have competed in more than one sport at the Paralympics.
Here are some other notable names to watch:
- Triathlon: Allysa Seely, Brad Snyder
- Swimming: Anastasia Pagonis, Jessica Long, McKenzie Coan
- Track and Field: David Brown, Hunter Woodhall, Tatyana McFadden
- Sitting volleyball: Nicky Nieves
- Cycling: Oksana Masters
- Wheelchair basketball: Steve Serio