Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

The Tokyo Paralympic Games scheduled to start on August 24 this year are the "most important" in the event’s history - precisely because of the pandemic in which they take place.

In an interview marking 100 days to go until the Paralympics get underway, that is the strong view taken by International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Andrew Parsons.

"The pandemic has highlighted inequalities in every society, in the infrastructure, in the services provided for persons with disability," Parsons told insidethegames.

"Even in as advanced a society as England, persons with disability made 60 per cent of the total number of deaths there in 2020. It’s something to take into account.

"The Paralympics is the only global event for persons with disability, that celebrates, that talks, that puts them at the centre. So that’s why we think these Games can really bring hope to one billion people with disability worldwide, but also bring them back to the centre of the inclusion agenda.

"And that’s absolutely fundamental. We are talking about 15 per cent of the worl'’s population. If you think of Rio and then Paris, there would be an eight-year gap if we don’t have the Paralympics in Tokyo.

"Of course we have winter edition of the Games but they are not as big as a summer edition. It is the main and only global event for persons with disability. And that is why it is so important that we have the Games in Tokyo. Not only for athletes with disability, but for persons with disability, worldwide.

"That’s why we are saying that this is the most important edition of the Paralympic Games in our history, because it’s exactly because of the pandemic."

Speaking to mark the 100-days-to-go until the Tokyo Paralympics, IPC President Andrew Parsons said he believes this edition will be the most important in the event's history ©Getty Images
Speaking to mark the 100-days-to-go until the Tokyo Paralympics, IPC President Andrew Parsons said he believes this edition will be the most important in the event's history ©Getty Images

When Parsons looked ahead to the Tokyo Paralympics in 2019 there was only one item on his list of "issues" - the lack of accessible hotel rooms for disabled people. He was "super-confident" that the Japanese capital would deliver "an incredible Games".

That was a material concern that spoke of the overall ambition, which was to change the Japanese culture with regard to persons with disabilities.

"With every edition of the Games we have a different vision from the host city, a different picture of what they want to achieve," Parsons told insidethegames with 500 days to go until the original Paralympics date.

"In Rio, the main focus was on the legacy of an accessible transport system.

"In Tokyo, because we don't have that need to the same level, we are focusing more on changing people's perceptions."

But then issue number two came along. So is Parsons’ main concern now safety rather than the changing the culture?

"It’s a balance," he said. "The number one priority is safety. Without safety, without protection, the Games can not move ahead. But then the question is why do we want the Games? And the answer to why we want the Games, even during the pandemic, is exactly what I have just been talking about.

"It’s about putting one billion persons back on the radar, and not ignoring 15 per cent of the world’s population. That is what we haven’t seen during the pandemic period.

"We mention the numbers of deaths in England, but we have similar reports from Latin America, where I am at the moment, so the pandemic has highlighted the fact that the inequalities for persons of disability are bigger than everyone thought.

"When there is a crisis persons with disability they become a second thought. And this just can’t be. They are as much human beings as anyone else.

"You can’t ignore or give a different treatment to 15 per cent of the world’s population. And we believe that we need something to change that, and at a global level the Paralympics is this thing. It is moment when you have, for example, we will have four billion people watching athletes with disability delivering incredible performances.

"This produces and inspires change. So the answer to your question is that we need safety to get the Games going, but why we need to get the Games going is because they change the world, because of what they can do with these one billion persons with disability."

IPC President Andrew Parsons has been heavily involved in planning for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics ©Getty Images
IPC President Andrew Parsons has been heavily involved in planning for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics ©Getty Images

Asked to be specific about the way he felt those with disability were "pushed to the back of the queue" during times of crisis, Parsons added: "We are talking about access to services planned for them in a moment where we advise isolation and social distancing. 

"Of course they are more affected than anyone else because of the way they move around for example, the access to accessible services and information.

"So this reflects in numbers of people who contract the virus, and the number of deaths. It’s how society does not embrace them from let’s say a service point of view, from an infrastructural point of view - we are not there yet.

"When there is a crisis, when something hits the fan, in consequence persons with disability are the last in line.

"I am not talking about priority lists to vaccines. I am talking about services and infrastructure that is designed to be inclusive, and it’s not. So when the crisis situation comes you highlight the issues that you have. But this would all be speculation if you didn’t have these numbers.

"When you have a country like England where 60 per cent of the deaths coming in 2020 were persons with disability, it’s a red flag. We must bring them back to the centre of this agenda so that we can offer the best in terms of services. Because something is wrong here.

"This is quite often the situation with persons of disability. They are proactively discriminated against, they are ignored, their specific need is not taken into account when there are designs of a service, or a public policy or emergency plans.

"So that’s what we want to change. That’s why the Paralympics are more important now than ever before."

Miraitowa, left, and Someity, respective  mascots for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images
Miraitowa, left, and Someity, respective mascots for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images

A year ago, Parsons described himself as "positive but realistic" about the Games. He remains the same.

"I think I am still positive but realistic," he said. "I am positive that the Games are going ahead but they will be different from any previous edition of the Games, with all the restrictions in movement, all the testing countermeasures in place. The experience will be different for everyone involved in the Games.

"Again I am realistic that this is the only way we can go ahead with the Games protecting everyone and protecting the Japanese society and understanding their feelings towards the Games and communicating to them how we will intend to protect them."

So how will those charged with running and overseeing the Tokyo Paralympics seek to do this? Given the news earlier this month that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and IPC had concluded a deal with the developers of the Pfizer vaccine to supply athletes worldwide, which supplemented the earlier offer of the Chinese Olympic Committee to supply vaccines of Sinovac for a similar purpose, has the Paralympics planning shifted in its emphasis?

"All the original planning was done without vaccination because that could not be mandatory," Parsons said. "It’s not something that we could do. But of course they offer an additional layer of protection, there is no doubt about it, and that’s why we have been, together with the IOC, in these agreements both with the Chinese Olympic Committee and now the recent agreement with Pfizer.

"Of course the vaccines offer maybe the ultimate layer of protection and we have seen around the world before the Pfizer announcement 60 per cent of the teams was our estimation based on athletes who had already been vaccinated or where the Government of these nations had guaranteed that they were going to be vaccinated prior to the Games.

"So prior to the Pfizer announcement, 60 per cent. Now we are working with the National Paralympic Committees (NPCs) to understand what will be the new number as a percentage.

"A that the time and now we thought the Games are likely to be delivered irrespective of the vaccines,  but we all recognise the vaccines offer this additional layer, and we encourage every national committee to get in touch with their Governments, and we are supporting that, to make the Pfizer offer a reality in each and every nation.”

This month's deal with the developers of the Pfizer COVID vaccine will raise the number of athletes vaccinated ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics well above the previously estimated figure of 60 per cent, it is claimed ©Getty Images
This month's deal with the developers of the Pfizer COVID vaccine will raise the number of athletes vaccinated ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics well above the previously estimated figure of 60 per cent, it is claimed ©Getty Images

So what proportion of Paralympians does Parsons envisage being vaccinated in time for the Games?

"It’s a difficult math to make," he said. "Of course we will always aim for 100 per cent. If we could have everyone at the Games vaccinated it would be the best possible scenario. But we need to understand that the Pfizer vaccine needs to be authorised by each national Government, and the same with the Chinese vaccines, the Sinovac and all the others.

"And in some countries we have restrictions. Here in Brazil you cannot have private vaccination, everything has to go through the Government, and it’s the same in many nations, so the NPCs and the NOCs are in this process now of approaching their Governments.

"So we would like to go for the best possible number. We think that 60 per cent is already a very good foundation base. But of course we believe now we are going for a higher number."

Given the extra vulnerability of many persons with disability to serious consequences from the COVID-19 virus, does Parsons feel an extra weight of responsibility as he envisages a 2021 Paralympics?

"Yes," he replied. "But there are two different situations here. One is the likelihood of someone contracting the virus. We have don’t have research or data that suggests that persons with a disability are more likely to contract the virus.

"So the level of protection to everyone attending the Games, the level of Olympic and Paralympic athletes at the Games is the same.

"But of course, due to the nature or level of the disability then it could become a more serious case. So then it is about the response after a symptom is identified after a positive test comes back.

"It’s then a matter of the medical response that needs to be more focused and more intense. It needs to be depending on the case, but we know that some - due to the nature or level of disability, the cases can be more severe - then we are planning for that medical response to be quick. Of course to isolate the person so it does not spread. To give the necessary medical services and infrastructure according to the case.

"So we have plans in place. But it’s more to do with the medical response than the initial protection that we will offer everyone."

Tokyo 2020 has marked 100 days to go to the Paralympic Games ©Getty Images
Tokyo 2020 has marked 100 days to go to the Paralympic Games ©Getty Images

Last week the IPC announced that 70 per cent of its qualification process for the Paralympics had been completed. With qualification ongoing in sports such as Para-athletics, Para-canoe and Para-badminton, Parsons believes everything will come together in time.

"I think the situation now in terms of qualification looks better," Parsons said. "In terms of slot allocation we are fine. We don’t foresee a major challenge. We are in close contact with all the International Federations. So at the moment we are in a very solid position of consolidation.

"We have 130 NPCs who have qualified at least one athlete. At the start of this process we wanted to have at least 160, 170 NPCs involved, but with the pandemic this may change.

"We don’t have a new target, although of course we want to have as many countries as possible. In terms of the number of athletes it will remain the same - 4,350. We wanted to be the issue with more NPCs than ever before but of course the pandemic has changed the situation."

Parsons is confident the likelihood of future strife over classification before the Paralympics is diminishing.

At the start of last month the IPC suspended its zero classification policy and said it would allow athletes in ten sports to be graded in the host city before Tokyo 2020.

Introduced in 2014, the policy banned classification taking place at the Paralympic Games in order to prevent disruption that would be caused by a last minute decision.

However, with some sports facing coronavirus challenges as they try to classify all of their athletes before Tokyo 2020, the IPC has opted to put the rule on hold.

It follows "extensive consultation" with International Federations and Tokyo 2020 organisers, and a desire to ensure that no athlete misses out on competing in Japan this year due to classification opportunities not being available.

The ten sports which will be able to classify in Tokyo are athletics, boccia, canoeing, cycling, judo, rowing, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair tennis.

These all have a larger pool of potential athletes requiring classification or a limited ability to schedule classifying events due to COVID-19.

Each sport has identified its maximum number of prospective Tokyo 2020 athletes and NPCs are still being asked to classify as many as possible before the Games.

The IPC said it hopes to confirm the number of athletes who will be classified in Tokyo immediately prior to the event.

"We are doing our utmost to guarantee that no athlete is going to, let’s say, not go to the Games or not have the opportunity to qualify due to lack of classification opportunities," said Parsons.

"In the last few weeks we have some good numbers when it comes to two big sports, athletics and swimming, when it comes to athletes being classified.

"And I have very good feedback from NPCs saying that due to the confirmation of these opportunities the number of athletes they need to classify from their nation is now very small, if any.

"So I am confident that no athlete is going to be left out because of a lack of classification opportunities in these 10 sports - because in the 12 other sports there is no issue with classification."