Michael Houston

I write this as I watch the men’s wheelchair basketball final at the Ariake Arena between the United States and Japan and this match perfectly summarises what the Paralympics is like to watch live.

Two teams separated by the finest margins with crowds incredibly invested in a game for the gold medal and the final piece of silverware at the Games.

It all feels normal.

Minus the masks, the ungodly amount of hand sanitiser, the obscene plastic waste and restrictions, it all feels normal.

Because we are at the stage where the conversation about the Paralympics has changed significantly over the past decade. Although still a key part of the Games, raising awareness feels like second nature now. Calling athletes "heroes" and delving into the background of their disability feels unnecessary and something that we are largely past.

In the Main Press Centre, we became well-acquainted with various journalists from the United Kingdom and further afield. Notably, the discourse around athletes at the Paralympics rarely touched on their disabilities, but often their personalities, controversies and in the case of David Weir, their criticism over a lack of technology.

Japan and the United States faced each other in the men's wheelchair basketball final ©Getty Images
Japan and the United States faced each other in the men's wheelchair basketball final ©Getty Images

The sheer emotion from winning and losing is as prevalent here as in any non-disabled competition. The Japanese media were out in their hundreds for the basketball final and were thoroughly invested - because sport is sport, regardless of who is competing.

It might be an obvious thing to say, but both Para-sport and women’s sport have faced gatekeeping from some fans and online commenters for the quality of competition. Statistically, there will be many shrugging Americans who religiously watch the National Basketball Association but will not be celebrating their nation’s Paralympic victory. Getting the public to see the Games live would have done a lot for disabled communities, but hopefully with record viewership, this message will still resonate around the world.

Let’s get the big bad "C" word over and done with - COVID-19. I was carrying a mountain of paperwork through Haneda Airport to go through the rigorous protocols - but at no point was the process difficult. The volunteers were great, the system for Tokyo 2020 personnel was separated and well-organised, and transport took you straight to your hotel.

Perhaps most tragic was three weeks without running. You are doing a fair amount of walking during the day, but you can’t replace the intensity of a 15-miler. The pandemic just makes everything a little bit slower. More awkward transportation, more screening going into venues and extra restricted areas. It all adds up and can take its toll.

Volunteers were pivotal to Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images
Volunteers were pivotal to Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

As can hotel breakfasts. I’ve eaten curry in the morning before, but often at my most desperate moments after a night out on the town - not to start a 15-hour day. I’m quite glad that my first trip abroad with insidethegames was as grand as this because much live a diver, I like the deep end.

Long hours is always a major gripe for anyone in sports media, but you take the rough with the smooth. It can be hard to read your friend texting you saying: "jealous!" while you’re on your third cup of coffee and struggling to stay awake, but how many people get to experience such an infamous event? It’s only when you are sitting in the Olympic Stadium watching the fastest athletes in the world do you truly understand how big an opportunity it is.

I might as well have slept at the Olympic Stadium, having visited most days for athletics - I was there so often, I was making friends with the press operations team! At the Stadium, I witnessed arguably the best 100 metres race to have taken place in a long time.

Felix Streng of Germany led his compatriot Johannes Floors, Costa Rican Sherman Isidro Guity Guity and Britain’s Jonnie Peacock in a blanket finish in the men’s T64 100 metres. The suspense in the Stadium was incredible, with delegations from all three countries holding their breaths. In a fitting conclusion to the race, all four were rewarded for their efforts as Floors and Peacock shared the bronze medal.

Britain's Owen Miller won the men's T20 1500m with a gallant effort ©Getty Images
Britain's Owen Miller won the men's T20 1500m with a gallant effort ©Getty Images

My favourite moment at the track was in the men’s T20 1500m, as I watched underdog Owen Miller of Britain upset the big names to win the gold medal. It was a surreal moment to watch, as I have raced against Owen a lot in Scotland, and he is an unassuming, friendly man. 

He had earned a reputation for going out hard and trying to hang on, but he timed his race to perfection and kicked with 300 metres to go. Seeing his journey that brought him to a place of self-confidence and just as importantly, a Paralympic title, has been rewarding as a viewer.

As much as I love the track, the Tokyo Aquatics Centre was rocking every night. Being a closed venue, delegations would often take to the stands across from the press tribune to chant the national anthem.

A special shoutout of course has to go to Italy and Australia who brought the place to life on many occasions. It was already loud with a few hundred people inside - a capacity crowd would have been deafening.

The Nippon Budokan was one of the real highlights of the Games, visiting the spiritual home of many martial arts and one that’s renowned worldwide. There, I witnessed the best in judo, with Azerbaijan being the dominant nation on the tatami.

Taekwondo was held at the Makuhari Messe - and I picked the right day to see a couple of thrilling finals. Lisa Gjessing of Denmark had long waited for the sport’s debut at the Paralympics and about half of Denmark were in the stands that night. It was an incredible response for one of the best ever when she won the gold medal in the women’s under-58 kilogram contest.

As we get set to depart tomorrow, what I’ve taken away most from this journey is the evolution of disabled sport and the improved acceptance of the disabled community.

Lisa Gjessing of Denmark received an incredible reception after taking gold in the women's under-58 kilogram contest in the taekwondo ©Getty Images
Lisa Gjessing of Denmark received an incredible reception after taking gold in the women's under-58 kilogram contest in the taekwondo ©Getty Images

This generation of athletes will play a part in attracting people to their sports, but it should not define them. Felix Streng should not be attracting comparisons to Usain Bolt - he should be the Felix Streng. Gabriel Araujo should not be asked what caused his limb deficiencies, he should be asked about his charismatic character. Lisa Gjessing should not be solely responsible for carrying the flag for the disabled community in her country, she should be proving the need for Para-sport funding for the next generation.

"People with disabilities should not have to do exceptional things to be accepted," was a line repeated by International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons this week during the Games. 

That sentiment seems to have resonated with the governing body with their head-on campaign, #WeThe15.

At the Closing Ceremony, a #WeThe15 video played that showed disabled people as incredibly ordinary, and they are. We need to treat the athletes like that whilst acknowledging their tremendous performances on the field, no different from Olympians. Stop drawing attention on what makes them different and let them be treated no differently than non-disabled people, while addressing accessibility and inclusion concerns.

In the true spirit of the Games, everyone came together to make the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics memorable. To everyone I met, it was an absolute pleasure and thank you for the memories. To the athletes, thank you for producing some of the best sport that I have seen live. To all those who played their part in helping make our Paralympics campaign a success, your hard work did not go unnoticed.

Sayonara Tokyo.