Everything You Need to Know About the Paralympics
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics get underway this week. Here’s who and how to watch.
Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
If the roller-coaster Tokyo 2020 Olympics did anything, they stoked our enthusiasm for the return of global sports with their rivalries, upsets, superhuman athletic feats, and moments of sportsmanship that can make a rugby player cry. The Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympics kick off on August 24, and they promise to feature just as much athletic derring-do set against a backdrop of pandemic-induced drama. If witnessing dedicated athletes realize their dreams gives you some joy amid all the uncertainty, it’s easy to see these games as the sporting event of the summer.
Tokyo is the first city to host the Summer Paralympics twice; back in 1964, 378 athletes competed in nine sports. This year, 4,400 athletes from about 170 nations will compete for gold in 22 different sports. Some are familiar events like swimming and track and field; others, like goalball or boccia, are wholly unique to the Paralympics.
Badminton and taekwondo will make their debut and replace sailing and seven-a-side soccer. Additionally, medals this year will include circular indents on the rim (one for gold, two for silver, three for bronze) to better serve visually impaired medalists. With COVID-19 cases still surging in Japan, the stands will be mostly empty (though this might not bother athletes during events like goalball, which requires silence so visually-impaired athletes can hear the jingling ball’s position on the court).
Here’s everything you need to get primed for the games—and stay tuned for continuing coverage.
The first version of what would become the Paralympics debuted just after World War II. After fleeing Nazi Germany, doctor Ludwig Guttman founded the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948 for British veterans with spinal cord injuries. The event coincided with the Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies in London; 16 men and women competed in a single event (archery).
Dutch veterans joined in 1952, kicking off an international competition that now trails only the Olympics in size and scope. The Summer Paralympics debuted in 1960 in Rome. Every four years since, winter and summer versions have taken place a few weeks after the Olympics conclude.
How to Watch the Paralympics
This year, the Paralympics will make its prime-time debut on NBC on Tuesday at 7 A.M. ET. Over 200 hours of live and delayed events will be broadcast across NBC, NBC Sports Network, and the Olympic Channel, while 1,000 more hours will stream through NBC’s streaming options like Peacock. Get the broadcast schedule here and a full schedule of events here.
The Paralympics classification system is at the heart of all Para sports competition: it both determines eligibility and levels the playing field. The latter is important given the diverse range of impairments, so that winners can be determined by skill, fitness, and performance in any given event. In goalball, for instance, players are all required to wear eyeshades so athletes with different levels of visual acuity can play together while maintaining the same level of competitive advantage.
There are ten different impairments that determine if an athlete is eligible to compete in the Paralympics: impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of movement, limb deficiency, leg length difference, short stature, muscle tension, uncoordinated movement, involuntary movements, vision impairment, and intellectual impairment.
The layers of classification can be complex, and are often customized for each sport. Track and field, for instance, comprises 32 different classes for events, ranging from T/F11, T/F12, and T/F13 (for different levels of vision impairment) to T/F34 (for athletes who compete in a wheelchair). Cycling is divided into four classes: C (cycling), H (handcycling), T (tricycle), and B (tandem for the visually impaired). A subclass numbering from one to five is then appended to indicate severity of impairment (C1, C2, C3, C4). But classification is not always standardized across the sport: B1, B2, and B3 tandem all have a sighted pilot rider with them, and thus all compete in the same event. (In sports that require them, the guides or pilots share medals.)
Other sports, such as basketball, include players of varying abilities and apply a point value to each player depending on level of impairment.
Here, you can read a full guide to Paralympics sports classification.
Athletes to Watch
The United States’ Paralympic roster of 234 includes 129 returning Paralympians and 51 champions. Here are some of Team USA’s brightest stars.
Paralyzed from the waist down since birth because of spina bifida, this 32-year-old wheelchair track and field powerhouse already has 17 Paralympic medals, including six from Rio. She won the “grand slam” of wheelchair marathons (London, Boston, New York, and Chicago) in 2013. McFadden has come a long way since she began “scooting” around sans wheelchair to keep up with friends in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia. She will compete in a slew of events in Tokyo, including the 100-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, 1,500-meter, 5,000-meter, 4×400-meter relay, and marathon wheelchair events. McFadden is also one of nine athletes featured in the Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix, which she co-produced.
With 23 medals—13 of them gold—Jessica Long is the second-most decorated Paralympian from Team USA and a dominant force in the pool. Born in Siberia with fibular hemimelia, she underwent 25 surgeries to amputate her legs below the knee as a child, shortly after her adoption by a U.S. family. She got her start swimming in her grandparents’ pool, where she pretended to be a mermaid. Now, after training for years with Michael Phelps, she has a new nickname: “Aquawoman.” Look for her to crush again in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, 400-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, 100-meter breaststroke, 100-meter butterfly, 200-meter individual medley.
Seely was a nationally ranked triathlete when a diagnosis of chiari II malformation, basilar invagination, and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome led to neurological difficulties, brain and spine surgery, and an eventual below-the-knee left leg amputation. Three years later, she won gold in triathlon’s Rio debut, which she’ll defend in Tokyo.
A former swim team captain at the U.S. Naval Academy, Snyder was injured by an explosive device while serving in Afghanistan. The explosion left his limbs intact but required the removal of his eyes. He took gold in the Men’s S11 100-meter freestyle in the 2012 London Paralympic Games one year to the day after losing his vision. He switched to triathlon in 2018, and hopes to medal in Tokyo.
Known as the “fastest blind man in the world,” David Brown holds the world record in the 100 meters (T11, 2014) alongside his guide Jerome Avery. They nicknamed themselves “BrAvery” and won gold in the 100 meters in Rio. The pandemic disrupted the duo’s training regimen, which requires close proximity, but they remain medal favorites in Tokyo.
Masters was born three years after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, which likely caused the birth defects that led to eventual amputation of both legs and reconstructive surgery for thumbless hands and webbed fingers. But now she’s an aspiring multi-season master: after winning bronze in rowing in London, Masters took gold in Nordic skiing in Pyeongchang before adding hand-cycling to her summer portfolio ahead of Rio, where she narrowly missed the podium in road (4th) and track (5th) races. Tokyo could finally bring a summer gold to match winter.
In April 2004, Melissa Stockwell lost a limb in active combat when a roadside bomb exploded next to her vehicle. She was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, and in 2008 became the first Iraq War vet to qualify for the Paralympics as a swimmer in Beijing. She switched to paratriathlon and took bronze in Rio behind fellow Team USA members Allysa Seely and Hailey Danze, who she will challenge in Tokyo.