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Paralympians thrilled to return to sport after concerns Games wouldn't happen

After a year's postponement, and major uncertainty about whether they'd get off the ground at all, the Tokyo Paralympics opened on Tuesday amid a barrage of fireworks and almost audible sigh of relief.

After a year's postponement, and major uncertainty about whether they'd get off the ground at all, the Tokyo Paralympics opened on Tuesday amid a barrage of fireworks and almost audible sigh of relief.

Judo athlete Priscilla Gagne carried Canada's flag into National Stadium in the opening ceremony and said there was immense joy in competing again after 19 challenging months amid the COVID-19 global pandemic.

"It's kind of like that old (Joni Mitchell) song 'Big Yellow Taxi.' Don't know what you got 'til it’s gone," Gagne said.

While there was fear the Tokyo Olympics would be cancelled amid growing cases of the pandemic in Japan, that fear was cranked up several notches for Paralympic athletes who believed an outbreak during the Olympics would erase their Games entirely.

"We all took a sigh of relief," said Canada's chef de mission Stephanie Dixon. "It was so great to see the COVID measures working at the Olympics, our Canadian delegation performing so well, and getting home safely. It boosted the confidence for all of us. 

"If the Olympics didn't go well, it was very possible that we wouldn't make it here. It was great to see how well the Olympics seemed to be received around the world, as well. And now our athletes are really pumped up and hoping to carry that momentum forward."

Andrew Parsons, president of the International Paralympic Committee, said in opening the Games: "I can't believe we're finally here. Many doubted this would ever happen. . . The most transformative sports event is about to begin."

Despite COVID-19 restrictions that were among the tightest in the world, Canada captured 24 medals at the Olympics, the most ever in a non-boycotted Summer Olympics. Canada claimed 44 in the boycotted 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Gagne, a 35-year-old from Sarnia, Ont., led a tiny contingent of less than half a dozen Canadians, clad in red jackets and white jeans, into National Stadium, a sign of the cautious times in which these Games are being held. The majority of the athletes watched the ceremony unfold in a Canadian team outdoor viewing party back at the athletes' village. 

"Just to be on the extra cautious side of COVID and competition starting the next day," Dixon said. "At the Paralympic Games, we have lots of athletes who are immunocompromised and we just want to take every possible precaution to make sure that we can keep our Canadian athletes safe, and athletes from the other countries as well. so yes, we're taking additional precautions here at the Paralympic Games from a Team Canada standpoint anyways."

Gagne, who has retinitis pigmentosa, a visual impairment, had training partner and guide Laurie Wiltshire carry the flag alongside her Tuesday in a ceremony set to a theme of "We Have Wings." The theme's thread wound through the performances set in a "Para Airport," and celebrated a little one-winged plane that had given up flying, but was inspired by other aircraft.  

The six-member Refugee Paralympic Team was the first to parade into a stadium that, like the Olympics that opened a month earlier, had no fans to welcome the athletes and only media and the enthusiastic volunteers lining their route. Neither Games could escape the pandemic despite being pushed back a year, and the unusual circumstances were felt in the cavernous — and all but empty — stadium.

If the athletes felt effects from the empty stands at the Olympics, it certainly didn't show up in their performances. Dixon hopes that remains true for Paralympic athletes as well.

"Athletes are so versatile," said Dixon, who captured 19 Paralympic medals for Canada in swimming. "That's their job, to adapt to the situation they're in, and do their best in a given situation. We saw that at the Olympics, incredible performances, and not just great performances given COVID, but incredible by any standard.

"It's a testament to how strong mentally our athletes are and the amount of resilience they have."

Canada captured 29 medals, including eight gold, at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. Like their Olympic counterparts, however, the Canadian Paralympic Committee didn't set a medal goal for their team of 128 athletes in Tokyo. 

Given the challenges of the past 19 months, and the various restrictions in each country, it was too difficult to gauge where Canada was at. Dixon said medal goals would only pile more pressure on athletes in these uniquely tough times. 

The 16th Paralympics will see some 4,400 athletes from 162 countries compete in 22 sports over 12 days of competition. The total countries is three more than competed in Rio in 2016, a remarkable accomplishment considering the events of the past year-and-a-half. 

Japan is still in its fourth state of emergency, which began before the Tokyo Olympics amid rising COVID cases

“To have 162 (teams) compete in Tokyo makes me extremely proud," Parsons said. "The last 18 months have been the most challenging yet for everyone involved in the Paralympic Movement."

Five countries are making their Paralympic debut: Bhutan, Grenada, Maldives, Paraguay, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. 

More than 20 countries withdrew from Tokyo however, for various reasons, including four countries — Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu — that encountered travel issues around the pandemic. Afghanistan was the most notable absence, forced to pull its two athletes after the recent Taliban takeover. In a message of solidarity — not there, but not forgotten — the IPC included the Afghanistan flag in Tuesday's parade of nations.

Canada's Para team is traditionally strong in swimming, track and field and cycling. Dixon said sitting volleyball and goalball will be interesting to watch. She said the year postponement was a bit of a blessing for both teams as they were centralized and able to spend that time training together. 

Canada qualified in five team sports, including wheelchair rugby, and men's and women's basketball. The return of Patrick Anderson, who's considered the greatest wheelchair basketball player in history, should be a big boost for men's basketball. The 42-year-old is competing in his fifth Paralympics.

He said the unique challenges around the pandemic would make a medal in Tokyo mean a little bit more.

"(We have) that competitive fire to try to win," Anderson said. "But it's almost like playing with house money. I'm really proud of all the success that I've been part of with Team Canada, but quite frankly, winning a medal (in Tokyo)will feel tougher than anything that we've had to face in the past. That medal would be extra heavy — in a good way."

While there's a common misconception that "Para" in Paralympic is in reference to paraplegic, it actually stands for parallel, meaning the Paralympics are parallel Games to the Olympics. The Olympic rings have been replaced by the Paralympic "agitos" — Latin for "move" — coloured red, blue and green as the colours most represented in the flags of the world.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 24, 2021. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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