As the world celebrates one year to go until the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics following their postponement earlier this year, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Andrew Parsons answers questions on preparations for the Games and what impact he believes they will have in 2021.
What has it been like as IPC President since the pandemic began?
It has been a very unique journey. When the whole crisis started in January, it was seen as a Chinese issue and the immediate concern was about whether Chinese Para athletes could compete in events around the world.
The situation then evolved dramatically, the Paralympics were postponed for the first time ever, and since then the challenge we have faced has changed on an almost daily basis.
The first effect that we felt within the Paralympic Movement was when sport competitions started to get cancelled. Initially, one of our first jobs was to look at how this would impact classification and qualification for Tokyo 2020.
Then as the number of cases continued to rise globally, and following interaction with the IOC and Tokyo 2020, it became obvious that the best decision was to postpone the Games. It was a tough decision but the correct one and involved a lot of pressure. We needed to have everything in place to make the decision, to make the right call.
Since the postponement, it has been a tough journey. First of all, we had to keep the moral high of the IPC team, as well as members around the world who have all felt the impact of the pandemic and the postponement.
I remain positive regarding preparations for next year and “flexibility” is our number one word that we apply to everything that we do. I am encouraged by some of the recent sport events taking place around the world, like the UEFA Champions League, the NBA, some football leagues and such like. Sport is taking place again, including some Para sport events, and I believe we have something to learn from all these events.
The best brains in the world are also working on a vaccine, on treatment, and we need to have the virus under control. I really believe that we will have the Games next year. When the Games do take place, they will have a different meaning.
What are the priorities between now and the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games opening next year?
The first priority was fixing the basics – secure the venues, finalise the competition schedule and assess the cost impact.
Tokyo 2020 did an excellent job in securing all the sport venues for the Games, the village and the MPC/IBC. The competition schedule published in early August is also pretty much the same as what was planned for 2020.
In terms of costs, we are assessing every single aspect of the Games to ensure they are cost efficient and ready. There’s a big commitment from everyone involved to try and reduce the cost of the Games. Sport events and these Games cannot be disconnected from the rest of the world, bearing in mind the majority of nations around the world have been hit financially by the situation.
In downscaling the Games, our absolute priority is to protect the athlete experience and the services and environment they benefit from.
There’s still a lot to do until the Opening Ceremony of the Games and every measure will be taken to protect the health of all participating athletes as well as all other stakeholders involved in the delivery of the Games.
Clearly, the pandemic is a challenge as it is hard to predict what level it will be tomorrow, never mind next year. Therefore, we need to plan carefully and prepare for multiple different scenarios.
What is the latest in terms of classification for the Games?
There are many roadmaps on the table right now because we don’t know when we will be having competitions again. Last week, we had a Para athletics event in Poland which featured athlete classification, but it’s difficult to predict when sport will fully get up and running ahead of the Games.
We need to plan the classification and qualification processes with different possibilities, with different scenarios. This is the challenge. It is not like planning one operation or drafting one strategy, we are drafting several different options and different scenarios to classify all the athletes ahead of the Opening Ceremony.
The uncertainty is very tough on Para athletes and brings a lot of anxiety around classification and qualification. The mental health of the athletes is something all National Paralympic Committees should be monitoring very closely because the pressure on athletes to keep training and focussed is significant.
What meaning will the Games have next year?
The Games in 2021 will have a very special meaning, they will be a symbol that we are on top of the pandemic and therefore, they will be a triumph and celebration of humanity.
The Paralympics is not only a sport event, it is a transformational event that can really change the world. With our ‘Change Starts with Sport’ narrative, we have a fundamental role to play in the area of human rights and how Paralympic sport can change the world and transform lives.
This time next year we will be celebrating the Opening Ceremony. It will be a moment in which we as human beings, as a species, will say we succeeded, and we succeeded by working together. Our message of inclusion, our message of diversity will be even stronger. I do believe that Tokyo can be something very special despite the pandemic and society will be able to look back and take on board some key learnings.
Humanity is evolving during this pandemic. A new normal is emerging whereby we are developing new relationships with each other and the society around us. Sport can act as a catalyst to this evolution.
Tokyo 2020 will be the first Paralympics under the IPC’s “Change Starts with Sport” brand narrative. What does the narrative mean?
We want to change the world, especially when it comes to the lives of persons with disabilities. Sport is a very powerful tool to achieve this because it connects with people so easily.
When you watch Paralympic sport, no one needs to explain anything to you. Your own experience helps you understand and change your perception. That’s why we believe ‘Change Starts with Sport’.
When you change how you perceive someone who is different from you, then you start to understand the importance of diversity and inclusion, why we should start to have all different kinds of people included into society.
We live in silos. If you look at people around you, your best friends, normally they are like you. But diversity is something that enriches every environment, the workplace, your home, your school, your university, the city, the country, the world. Diversity is something to be valued and not something to be feared. I believe this change can really start with sport.
The Paralympic Games is the only global event in the world where disability is celebrated and valued. Change Starts with Sport is a very powerful message which we will deliver at the Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022, Paris 2024, Milano 2026 and LA2028 Paralympic Games.
The Paralympic Movement is playing a major role when it comes to human rights and in many ways, we are going back to Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s dream from 75 years ago. He wanted every person with a disability to become a taxpayer and active citizen in society. His dream is our dream; we want a society where every single person can play an active role. We are not there yet, we have more to do, but we believe sport can be the tool to Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s dreams.
We have a clear view of what impact the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will have not only in Japan or Asia, but all over the world. Through broadcasting for example, we want more than 4 billion people to watch the Games. We will prepare the best stage in the world for the Para athletes to excel. Supporting the sport will be a global campaign, outstanding broadcast and the best partner activations ever seen at a Paralympics. The actions of the athletes of the fields of play will translate into a message that will change the world.
It’s very clear what we want from the Paralympic Games. We want to change attitudes towards persons with disabilities, mobilise society and make it easier for people to get around. Finally, we want to create greater opportunities for persons with disabilities in order to make for a more inclusive society.