They did it. After all the delays, controversies and restrictions that threatened to scupper their hopes and plans, Tokyo successfully managed to host the 2020 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, a year later than scheduled. It’s not been without understandable criticism in these extraordinary times, with suggestions that it should have been delayed further, among various other issues, and there were a few athletes and other personnel who tested positive for Covid both before and during the competitions. And the absence of spectators, along with the widespread use of face masks, hand sanitiser and other safety protocols, gave the events a very different feel to usual.
Nevertheless, they still went ahead, and turned out to be a great success, treating us to a lot of incredible sporting action as a result. And it’s all the more impressive given that the competitors haven’t been able to train in the usual way over the past year, often being stuck at home instead of using the normal venues and facilities that would otherwise be available to them. Congratulations to all the athletes and teams who took part, and well done to the event organisers, staff and volunteers for making the events happen.
So I’ve really enjoyed watching the Games – especially the Paralympics of course, but the Olympics were great too. It’s all given us some welcome escapism from the pandemic, despite the constant reminders of its presence and impact. And so I thought I would share some of my favourite highlights. I’m not sponsored by any organisations or people mentioned here, I just want to acknowledge and celebrate just a few of the many amazing achievements of the athletes who I enjoyed watching.
The BBC once again covered the Olympics on TV, radio and online here in the UK – but in a much reduced capacity, unfortunately. After Rio 2016 the European rights were sold to US company Discovery, which meant this year they were able to show as much as they liked across multiple Eurosport channels and their Discovery+ streaming service. I was already able to get those channels in my existing Virgin Media package, luckily, but many other people will have missed out. And to be honest, I wasn’t very impressed when i had a look, with commentary that was either poor or non-existent, so I quickly gave up on it and stuck with the BBC. If you want descriptive commentary, BBC Radio 5 Live is always great for that, and they have good commentators on TV as well.
Thankfully Discovery did sub-license some coverage to the BBC, mainly because they were scared of the public backlash if they didn’t. But it meant a significant reduction in live coverage. Unlike London 2012 and Rio 2016, where the BBC had loads of live streams you could watch, this time they were only allowed to broadcast 2 live events at once. And this arrangement will continue until at least 2024, so it’ll be the same for the Paris Games. However, they were still able to show recorded events and highlights of their choice later on, and there were regular updates on their website, so I didn’t miss anything important.
Indeed, given the time difference, it was impossible for me to watch most events live anyway, so most of what I saw was on the breakfast and lunchtime update programmes, and the highlights they shared online, which worked well enough for me personally. However, the BBC has naturally had a lot of complaints for its reduced coverage and its impact on the schedules, even though its hands were tied to a large extent, and some felt there was too much discussion and analysis that further limited the amount of sport shown.
Still, I think they covered it pretty well, taking into account the restrictions imposed by the Discovery deal, along with the Covid rules that meant they had to keep most of their production team and presenters here in the UK. They got around that latter issue quite cleverly in the TV studio, using green screen and CGI generated by the Unreal Engine to great effect. So it still felt like they were there in some way, even though they were really in Salford. And they had a great team of commentators and presenters as usual. So I think they did the best they could, and I enjoyed it. The coverage wasn’t perfect or as comprehensive as we’re used to, sure, but some is better than none. And the BBC will never be able to please everyone whatever they do!
Anyway, on to the Games themselves, and the Opening Ceremony was inevitably, and quite rightly, heavily stripped back, and as a result was much less exciting than everyone would have preferred. But it was nice and respectful, with moments of reflection, togetherness and hope. They also used music from video games during the athletes’ parade, and it was great to see some disabled participants during the ceremony as well.
As for the sport, I enjoyed many of the events and the excellent achievements we had in several sports. For example:
- We had a lot of success in the swimming and diving events, and I’m so pleased that Tom Daley finally got a gold medal after 20 years of diving, in his synchronised display with Matty Lee. He also won a bronze later on, becoming the first Team GB diver to win 4 Olympic medals, and also showed off his knitting skills with his specially made cardigan!
- Our gymnasts were also on good form, including Max Whitlock retaining his title on the pommel horse and our first medal in the women’s team gymnastics for 93 years.
- And during the impressive equestrian events, where the horses always look beautiful as they do their steps and dances, Charlotte Dujardin became the most successful British female Olympian.
- Meanwhile in the velodrome, where we always do well, cyclist Jason Kenny finished us off in style with a magnificent race, as he became the most successful British Olympian of all time, with 7 gold and 2 silver medals to his name.
- But my favourite sport was the BMX cycling, which was exhilarating to watch. We won gold and silver in a couple of great races, and Declan Brooks got an impressive bronze for the men’s freestyle event. But in the women’s freestyle event, Charlotte Worthington’s victorious display was astonishing, especially having the courage to pull off a dangerous 360 backflip that no other woman has done in competition before on her second attempt, after falling off when trying it on her first run. She could have played it safe second time around, and nobody would have thought any less of her. But she had the guts to go for it, and it paid off superbly by earning her the gold medal. So very well done to her!
Altogether we successfully equalled our London 2012 haul of 65 medals, made up of 22 Gold, 21 Silver & 21 Bronze! So big congratulations to all of our medal winners from Team GB, you’ve done us proud as usual!
The Olympics then came to an end with a fun Closing Ceremony, which saw Tokyo rightly celebrating the fact that they defied the odds and the critics to put on a very successful Games despite the challenges they faced. It was a great way to finish.
After the dust had settled from the Olympics, we then of course had the Paralympic Games to enjoy. And while there were sadly a few instances of discriminatory treatment of some disabled athletes reported early on, which I hope were investigated or will be, the Games ultimately went very well and were fantastic to watch.
Once again Channel 4 extensively covered the event, which they will also be doing for the Paris 2024 Games. Unlike the BBC’s limited deal for the Olympics, Channel 4 have had a completely separate arrangement, giving them the full broadcasting rights to the Paralympics, which is fantastic. As a result, they were able to offer many live streams on their Paralympics website, on top of their substantial TV coverage, their All 4 catch-up service, and lots of highlights on their Youtube sports channel.
Their TV output included very enjoyable editions of comedy show The Last Leg every night. They had quite a few of our Paralympic heroes being interviewed by video call from Tokyo or appearing in the studio after arriving back from Japan, along with former Paralympians giving insights as guests. There was also an honoured appearance by Eva Loeffler (the daughter of Sir Ludwig Guttmann, who established the Paralympic movement with the Stoke Mandeville Games). And various comedians took part as well, including a few helping hosts Adam Hills, Alex Brooker and Josh Widdicombe to try out some para sports themselves, and there were disabled comedians in the studio including Chris McCausland and Lee Ridley (Lost Voice Guy).
And while the show had to be filmed in London’s Olympic Park due to the Covid restrictions, comedian Rosie Jones, who has cerebral palsy, was able to jet out to Tokyo to see the Games live as the show’s roving reporter, and it was clear it had a bigger emotional impact on her than she’d expected. It’s quite something to see the Paralympics on TV as it is, but to be there in person is something else entirely I’m sure. So she was very lucky, and I’m glad she made the most of the experience, it was great to see her enjoying herself so much every day. Some of the athletes were glad to have someone cheering them on so enthusiastically too, given the general lack of spectators!
And in terms of accessibility, Channel 4 broadcast daily versions of their highlights show plus the opening and closing ceremonies with audio description and sign language, while in collaboration with the RNIB they ran a special advertising campaign highlighting the benefits of audio description to all their viewers.
So they’ve made a lot of effort as usual this year. And if you want to understand why I appreciate the extent of Channel 4’s coverage and The Last Leg so much, check out my review of the Rio 2016 Paralympics, where I discussed it in detail. And while you’re at it, you might also want to read about my experience of being in the Last Leg audience the following year, that was fun too.
Anyway, Channel 4 publicised this year’s Games with another excellent promotional video, which celebrated the talents and diversity of the athletes, and injected a bit of respectful humour too. There’s also a version audio described very nicely by Adam Hills and another with signing & subtitles. And for those who are curious, the music used is So You Want To Be A Boxer by Jay Prince, which is a cover of a song from Bugsy Malone by Paul Williams.
I know a few disabled people weren’t happy with the slogan “To be a Paralympian, there’s got to be something wrong with you”, and that’s understandable from their perspective. But I like it personally. It’s obvious Channel 4 aren’t setting out to cause offence, and I think it’s great that the promo is upbeat and positive and a bit light-hearted, while also acknowledging a few of the challenges faced by the athletes. It helped to draw in a non-disabled audience, who will have learnt a lot about the athletes and different disabilities throughout the Games, as well as attracting many disabled viewers like myself too. Sure, there is a lot of awareness and education that still needs to take place outside the Games, and I don’t think there’s a way of getting a perfect message across that will suit the entire disabled community or be agreed upon by all of us. But what does come across from the Games is still powerful and important.
So on to the action. And after a beautifully inspiring Opening Ceremony, which was more lively and exciting than the one for the Olympics, this year’s Paralympic Games once again provided a huge range of impressive sporting achievements, from people with a wide range of disabilities. That even included a few with aniridia (my eye condition), and you can see interviews with Team USA’s aniridic members Amanda Dennis (Goalball) and Katie Davis (Judo) by the Aniridia Network.
But I was most focused on the the Paralympics GB athletes, obviously, and they’ve given us so much to enjoy over the past couple of weeks. For example:
- Wheelchair rugby is always a highlight, and it was more so than ever this year thanks to Great Britain’s historic win over three-time champions USA in the final. That makes them the first European team to win any Paralympic medal in the sport, so it’s a massive achievement to say the least!
- In the cycling, where all 20 members of our team got at least 1 medal each, Dame Sarah Storey has become the most successful British Paralympian of all time after earning her 15th, 16th & 17th gold medals at these Games, and there were 2 golds won by visually impaired couple Neil & Lora Fachie within just 16 minutes of each other.
- Among our successes in the athletics, Hannah Cockcroft smashed the world record to win the 100m and stormed to victory in the 800m, giving her 7 Paralympic gold medals to date, while Jonnie Peacock earned a very respectable bronze in an extremely tight 100m race, and Richard Whitehead spoke passionately about his support for the disabled community after his silver medal win.
- And among the visually impaired track and field athletes, javelin thrower Dan Pembroke won gold on his Paralympics debut with a record distance, while runner Libby Clegg announced her retirement before finishing her Paralympics career with a silver medal in the new Universal Relay event.
- Boccia had a rare and thus welcome moment in the spotlight on live TV, as David Smith successfully defended his title, winning his third gold medal in a very close match. He was then chosen to be the flag-bearer for the Closing Ceremony, a well-deserved honour.
- Lee Pearson had a clean sweep in the equestrian events, winning 3 gold medals. That takes his total to 14 Paralympic golds, securing his spot as Britain’s third most successful Paralympian ever.
- We also had a great deal of success in the swimming too. But the most memorable and emotional moments from the pool, and arguably the entire Games, involved 2 Ellies. Ellie Simmonds announced that this would be her last Paralympics, giving her a well-earned retirement after a stellar career that has inspired so many others to get involved. And during her reign as the poster girl for the London 2012 Paralympics, she inspired a wonderful young lady called Ellie Robinson, who made it to Tokyo this year and gave a very moving interview after coming 5th in her final race. Her openness about her tough journey to this point gave us all a firm reminder that the Games aren’t really about the medals, but about everything that all of the Paralympians have battled with and worked so hard on to get to the event in the first place. The guts and determination of both Ellies, and the impressive results they’ve achieved, against the huge odds that have been stacked against them, are a prime example of that.
And of course, all of that is just scratching the surface of our long list of 124 medals, consisting of 41 Gold, 38 Silver & 45 Bronze! The GB team also made history by winning medals in 18 different sports out of the 19 we entered, which is more than any other nation has ever achieved in a single Paralympic Games. And overall there have been so many great moments, and lots of new stars making impressive debuts.
It’s also been clear from social media that many disabled children and adults have been inspired to check out how they can get involved in sport too. When you see someone with your condition becoming so happy and successful, it cannot be understated how much joy and hope that can give you. It’s a legacy that the Paralympic Games can be very proud of.
So a huge well done to everyone who took part, you’ve impressed, educated, entertained and inspired a huge audience! Let’s continue that momentum so that disabled people are Impossible To Ignore, rather than feeling excluded from society as at least 49% do right now according to that campaign.
And on a related note, this year’s Paralympics also helped to launch the We The 15 campaign, a global collaborative movement working to change attitudes towards, and generate more opportunities for, disabled people, who make up 15% of the global population (and that figure is certainly higher in some countries). On Youtube there’s a selection of clips about the campaign, including the promotional video (with an audio described version) and an introductory video. The BBC have also interviewed one of the founders on their Ouch podcast, and have highlighted the campaign in a news article. So best of luck to all involved, I hope it helps to make a difference.
All in all, there was a lot to celebrate and be grateful for by the end of the Paralympic Games, and Tokyo finished off their summer of sport with a colourful Closing Ceremony. It’s a shame that it’s all come to an end so quickly.
So well done to the Japanese organisers and volunteers, and the people of that fine country as a whole, for doing such a great job putting on the Olympics and Paralympics, especially in such difficult circumstances. It’s been nothing short of amazing that they’ve pulled it off so well.
Arigato Tokyo! Now roll on Beijing in March 2022 for the Winter Olympics & Paralympics, Birmingham in Summer 2022 for the Commonwealth Games (which will include more para sports than ever before), and Paris in Summer 2024 for the next Summer Olympics & Paralympics!