The Tokyo Paralympic Games open Tuesday after a pandemic one-year delay and the virus continuing to cast a long shadow as Japan battles a record increase in cases.
As at the Olympics, the event will be marked by strict virus rules, with almost all spectators banned and strict restrictions for athletes and other participants.
As a wave of domestic support emerged during the Olympics after months of negative polls, Japan is deeply concerned as the Paralympic Games approach, with the country going through a fifth wave of the virus.
More than 25,000 new cases were recorded on Thursday, and doctors across the country have warned hospitals are at breaking point with severe cases also at record levels.
It’s a tough environment for the most important sporting event for athletes with disabilities, and the head of the International Paralympic Committee, Andrew Parsons, warned participants against complacency.
Despite the context, IPC officials insist the scope of the event will be “incredible.”
“Of course, the fact that we don’t have spectators at the venues is a challenge,” Parsons told AFP in an interview.
“But we think we will reach over four billion people through dissemination. “
Local officials say the Games can be held safely, with athletes and other participants subject to the same anti-infective rules that apply at the Olympics.
– Virus ‘the situation has deteriorated’ –
Competitors may only enter the Paralympic Village shortly before their event and must leave it within 48 hours of the end of their competition.
They will be tested daily and limited to trips between training sites, competition sites and the Village.
The measures are aimed at preventing the Games from becoming a large-scale event – and officials say the Olympics have proven the restrictions to work.
There were 552 Olympics-related positive cases reported from July 1 through Saturday, the majority among Japanese residents employed by the Games or working as contractors.
So far, 107 cases related to the Paralympic Games have been confirmed.
But Olympic officials say there is no evidence of the infection spreading from the Games to the rest of Japan, where the number of cases was already on the rise.
Yet the organizers recognize the worsening environment.
“The infection situation today is different from what it was before the Olympics. It has deteriorated, ”said Hidemasa Nakamura, responsible for Tokyo 2020, on Friday.
“And the local medical system is also in a very tense situation. “
The wave of the virus has sparked tensions, with some regions and local schools canceling planned trips to Games events despite program support from Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
– ‘Lame Jumper’ –
The mood among the Paralympians remains strong, however, after the uncertainties of the one-year delay.
“It’s up to us to go for gold! Tweeted US archer Matt Stutzman, Paralympic silver medalist who uses the ‘Armless Archer’ grip.
Stutzman is among those likely to climb to the medal podium during the Games, which will see 4,400 athletes from around 160 national teams compete.
There are 22 sports, with athletes competing in different categories and classes depending on the nature of their disability. Badminton and taekwondo are appearing for the first time.
Big names include German Markus Rehm, nicknamed the ‘Blade Jumper’ for his gravity-defying long jump exploits, which earned him three gold and one bronze.
He has pushed to be included in the Olympics, but so far to no avail, fearing his prosthetic blade would give him an advantage.
Other well-known names include Tatyana McFadden, the American wheelchair runner who will compete in her fifth Summer Paralympic Games.
She also appeared at the Sochi Winter Games, where she won a silver medal in the country where she was born, as her American adoptive mother and Russian birth mother cheered her on.
Japan hope they can repeat the gold rush that saw them win a record 58 Olympic gold medals.
Among his top medal hopes is Shingo Kuneida, the reigning world number one men’s wheelchair champion and considered one of the sport’s greatest figures.
© 2021 AFP