Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

In August 2016, the then President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), Sir Philip Craven, reflected upon the turbulent build-up to the imminent Rio 2016 Paralympics, concluding: "Never before in the 56-year history of the Paralympic Games have we faced circumstances like this".

At that moment, the Rio 2016 Paralympics faced huge problems with regard to meagre ticket sales and a critical failure to fund the travel grants necessary for National Paralympic organisations around the world to bring their para-athletes to the Games.

There were implicit, if not explicit, suggestions that the Paralympics was a less important enterprise than the Olympics.

Five years on, however, the same sentiment could be repeated, with bells on, by Craven’s successor Andrew Parsons.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the sporting landscape, as it has the world. As with the Tokyo Olympics, which closed on August 8, rising numbers of COVID-19 positives in the Japanese capital have precluded the presence of spectators once the 16th Paralympics – first staged in Rome in 1960 - open on Tuesday (August 24).

But the situation for the Paralympics, to which around 4,400 athletes are committed, appears even more challenging than that which faced the Olympics. As insidethegames reported on Friday, Tokyo 2020 Paralympics organisers admitted they are facing a "very difficult situation" as hospitals in the Japanese capital come under increasing strain due to surging COVID-19 cases.

Officials in charge of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics due to open on Tuesday (August 24) have said they are facing
Officials in charge of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics due to open on Tuesday (August 24) have said they are facing "a very difficult situation" due to rapidly rising COVID-19 cases ©Getty Images

Hidemasa Nakamura, delivery officer for Tokyo 2020, conceded the city's battle against coronavirus had "deteriorated" since the start of the Olympics, raising further question marks over the staging of the Paralympics.

Japan topped 25,000 new coronavirus cases in 24 hours for the first time yesterday despite much of the country, including Tokyo, being under a state of emergency. On the eve of the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics on July 23, Tokyo registered nearly 2,000 COVID-19 infections. Almost one month later, Tokyo totalled more than 5,000 cases for a third straight day, with 5,405 reported over the past 24 hours.

After holding a meeting with experts on COVID-19 countermeasures, Nakamura admitted more needed to be done to protect athletes from catching the virus. "Para athletes compared to Olympic athletes have the risk of getting an even serious symptom, so we need to be even more careful," said Nakamura. "The infection state is different to how it was for the Olympics. It has deteriorated and the local medical situation is tight."

Craven, who served four terms of office as IPC President, always said the Paralympic Movement was "all about flexibility - it has had to be to grow." That flexibility was vitally evident in the lead-up to the Rio Paralympics. 

With 19 days remaining until the Opening Ceremony, only 300,000 of the 2.4 million Paralympic tickets had been sold. Meanwhile, media were beginning to report the Paralympics as the "Forgotten Games."

But sales began to creep up as two initiatives took effect. One boost came from a Rio 2016 education programme that worked in partnership with the Rio de Janeiro State Government to provide 33,000 tickets for local teenagers to experience the Paralympics.

Additionally, a #FillTheSeats campaign on social media raised $20,000 (£15,000/€18,000) towards funds for buying tickets to then distribute for free in the space of a week. This in turn prompted renewed initiatives from the IPC and Rio 2016 organisers to fund the distribution of 10,000 tickets to Brazilian children and disabled people.

There was a reported "last-minute" demand for low-cost tickets and, on the third day of the Games, the IPC announced at least 1.8 million tickets had been sold, surpassing the figure of 1.7million at the Beijing 2008 Paralympics. On September 14, the IPC announced sales had exceeded two million.

As the ticket sales began to pick up before the Games, however, the question of funding for travel grants became ever more vexed.

Craven said such payments needed to be made "pronto". The prospect loomed of Paralympic arenas turning out to be at least reasonably well-filled, only for there to be a lack of performers when the show began. Then, on August 18 2016, a legal injunction was lifted and the full funding was delivered, enabling 165 national delegations to attend the Games.

Former IPC President Sir Philip Craven described the London 2012 Paralympics as the
Former IPC President Sir Philip Craven described the London 2012 Paralympics as the "greatest ever" and stewarded last minute bolstering of ticket sales and travel grants to enable the Rio 2016 Games to go ahead ©Getty Images

Right now, however, Craven’s dictum appears truer than ever before as the Paralympic Movement’s current custodians batter their wits to keep open the precious possibility of participation at the highest level for thousands of dedicated athletes with disability.

The latest reports indicate there are more than 100 athletes who have still to be classified within competition. There have been single numbers of athletes already testing positive for COVID-19. Organisers are said to be considering imposing restrictions beyond the initial 14-day period for those involved in the Games. And Pacific Island nations Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and Kiribati have withdrawn due to the difficulties of observing travel and health restrictions.

The only grim plus of the situation is that the ban on spectators has obviated any problems regarding ticket sales…

Speaking to insidethegames on Sept 28 2014, shortly after being re-elected for the final time, Craven identified "three key objectives" for the Paralympic Movement.

"The first," he said, "is to maintain the momentum we have gained following the 2008 Beijing Games and the London 2012 Games, and also following on from the successful Sochi Winter Games earlier this year. As we go, we have to adapt to different cultures and different concerns - but that is one of the thrills of being in this job.

"The second objective is to get more people to participate in Paralympic sports across the world, not necessarily at the elite level but for fun. We want more people to experience the transformational power of taking part in sport, and we are being assisted in this aim by the work of the Agitos Foundation.

"The third aspect we have to concentrate upon is the need to continue improving the standards and attractiveness of Paralympic sport to all parties.

"We had a great summer Olympics in Beijing, which really confirmed the programme we had been working on for between eight and ten years. And when we got to the London 2012 Games, the whole thing really took off. We knew we had really arrived.

"Sochi held a great Paralympic Games and, as we come to the end of our third four-year structure plan in 2014, we have maintained our momentum as a Movement.

"That now has to be sustained at the Rio 2016 Games, which are absolutely crucial to our continued success, and onwards through to the 2020 Tokyo Games."

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, current IPC President Andrew Parsons has called the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, current IPC President Andrew Parsons has called the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics "the most important ever" ©Getty Images

The size of the Summer Paralympic Games in terms of competitors has increased from 400 athletes at the first edition in Rome in 1960 to 4,342 athletes from 159 countries in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Tokyo’s projected total slightly exceeds that of Rio, although it remains to be seen if any other countries will drop out.

Sadly, the restrictions to foreign domestic spectators which the Tokyo health authorities have felt obliged to impose, mean one of the most important goals for the latest Paralympics, as expressed on many occasions by the current IPC President, namely altering perceptions about providing wheelchair access in hotels and across the city, have been stymied.

The broader goal of attempting to alter the Japanese cultural attitudes to people of disability remains. This is something that will now have to be empowered through the example of athletic performances, rather than the material changes that were being envisaged to enable visitors and Games-related individuals in wheelchairs to enjoy free and easy access to accommodation and travel within the capital.

Such flexibility is essential for the Paralympics and, like Craven before him, Parsons has shown a fine ability to shift and bend with circumstance as he seeks the silver linings.

In May, he told insidethegames: "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 world’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 editions 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 - it’s exactly because of the pandemic."

That is an honourable objective and, in broad terms, looks ready to be achieved. But, even more so than with Olympians, fingers will be crossed for the health of more vulnerable Paralympians. And in both cases, of course, fingers remain crossed that the numbers of Tokyo 2020 COVID-19 positives do not continue to rise.

While the impending Paralympics may be the most important in the history of the Movement, the verdict from the last IPC President on the best was clearly stated in the wake of the Closing Ceremony at the London 2012 Games, which he labelled "the greatest Paralympic Games ever."

Of course, Craven was hardly likely to announce in those circumstances: "London – we salute you for the second-best Paralympics ever, or perhaps, bearing in mind Sydney, the third best..."

But his was not a controversial opinion. And it was fitting that it should be Britain, in which the Paralympic Movement was born, thanks to the initiative of a German-born refugee, Dr Ludwig Guttmann, that put on what many believe has been the greatest Paralympic show yet seen.

The signs were encouraging before the London 2012 Paralympics – a record total of 2.7m tickets were sold. For home followers, the so-called Super Saturday of the London 2012 Olympics was matched, if not surpassed, by "Thriller Thursday".

Britain's Paralympians delivered their own version of triple triumph as the golds won by Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah on the first weekend of the Olympic track and field programme were matched by Hannah Cockcroft, David Weir and Jonnie Peacock.

Weir won his third track gold of the Games in the T54 wheelchair 800m and Peacock followed up by securing the much-hyped T44/43 100 metres title ahead of a field which included South Africa's defending champion and London 2012 pioneer Oscar Pistorius, who finished outside the medals.

As the field lined up for 100m, the crowd – a largely new and different crowd from that which had assembled for the Olympic competition - began a charmingly innocent chant of "Pea-cock, Pea-cock", in the manner of school match supporters, before being shushed down by the stadium announcer - and Peacock himself.

The tension escalated as Alan Oliveira, the Brazilian who had precipitated the biggest hoo-hah since the Battle of Britain by defeating Pistorius in the previous Sunday's 200m final, stuttered over the line for a false start.

Home sprinter Jonnie Peacock wins T44 100 metres gold on a stupendous night of sport at the London 2012 Paralympics ©Getty Images
Home sprinter Jonnie Peacock wins T44 100 metres gold on a stupendous night of sport at the London 2012 Paralympics ©Getty Images

The insinuation by the South African – now serving time for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in February 2013 – that his rival had been benefiting from prosthetic legs that exceeded legal size was firmly rebutted by the IPC, but the debate raised the profile of Paralympic sport to previously unknown levels.

When the field got away cleanly, the single leg amputees Peacock and Richard Browne of the United States started best. They eventually held on for gold and silver, despite the expected charge of the double amputees as they began to benefit from their greater momentum following slower starts.

And so Peacock, the fresh-faced teenager from Cambridge, who lost his right leg as a five-year-old after contracting meningitis, finished three places clear of the man who had inspired him to start running. And the decibel level, officially, topped that of Super Saturday. For anyone who was there on that night, that race, with all the elements of home support and Pistorius, was a unique and heady mix.

If the athletes currently set to go in Tokyo are able to continue on the long and winding road already taken just to get to these latest Paralympics, there will surely be fresh moments arriving to rank with those.

Asked to reflect upon some of his own favourite moments at the head of the IPC, Craven told insidethegames: "When we celebrated 20 years of the IPC's existence in 2009, I said that we had come from being a disability sports organisation to an international sports organisation. That moment was one of my personal highlights.

"Others include two from the London 2012 Games - watching Patrick Anderson playing for Canada against Australia in the wheelchair basketball final, and Jonnie Peacock asking for quiet before his 100m final at the Olympic Stadium and then winning gold.

"The atmosphere in the stadium that night was a human expression of fun, love, sport. It was there for all to hear."