TOKYO (AFP, REUTERS) - The Tokyo Paralympics opened on Tuesday (Aug 24) in a near empty stadium after a year-long delay, as Japan struggles with its worst Covid-19 outbreak so far, record daily cases and an overwhelmed medical system.
The biggest event for disability sports, which will run until Sept 5, will be held under “very difficult” circumstances as Japan’s health situation has significantly worsened since the Olympic Games ended on Aug 8.
Tokyo hospitals are filled to capacity amid Japan’s worst Covid-19 outbreak so far, with record daily cases and an overwhelmed medical system.
Except for VIPs, including International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, and other staff, the opening ceremony at the National Stadium was held behind closed doors.
“I declare open the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games,” Japanese Emperor Naruhito said.
The Tokyo Games organising committee has highlighted the courage of Paralympians, who are trying to spread their wings against adverse winds.
In line with the “We Have Wings” concept, a mini “airport” was formed on the stadium field, telling the story of a one-winged plane that takes to the skies.
Yui Wago, a 13-year-old who uses a wheelchair and has upper and lower limb disorder, was cast as the plane during the performance.
Afghanistan was supposed to have been represented by a two-member contingent, including taekwondo exponent Zakia Khudadadi. She was earmarked to be the country’s first female competitor at a Paralympic Games.
But along with track athlete Hossain Rasouli, the duo were unable to fly to Tokyo after the Taleban ousted the previous government and retook the capital Kabul earlier this month. As such, the country’s flag was carried by a volunteer to represent “solidarity” with those in the war-torn nation.
Singapore's delegation was led by flag-bearer and shot putter Muhammad Diroy Noordin. The Republic is represented by 10 athletes across six sports - archery, athletics, cycling, equestrian, powerlifting and swimming.
Diroy, who is making his second appearance at the Paralympics, said: "It was an honour for me to stand tall at the Olympic Stadium and to hold our country's flag. While I was a bit nervous, I focused on consistency and ensured our flag flew high.
"I hope that my involvement as flag bearer has created more awareness of the Paralympic movement and brought pride to Singapore."
Among those who were involved in the spectacle were powerlifter Nur Aini Mohamad Yasli, swimmer Toh Wei Soong, and seven Team Singapore officials, including chef de mission Shirley Low.
Low called on Singaporeans to support the athletes, saying: "We are finally here, arriving at the starting block. I have encouraged all the athletes to take a
moment to reflect and know that they are participating in something truly memorable.
"Our athletes carry the dreams of our nation and I believe sport has the power to unite."
Equestrienne Laurentia Tan was also present at the ceremony, representing Asia as a flag bearer of the Paralympic flag. The four-time Paralympic medallist carried the flag alongside five flag bearers from other regions and one from Japan.
"I am proud for my country Singapore, to be chosen to represent Asia to increase disability awareness and spread social inclusivity through the International Paralympic Committee to the world at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and beyond," said Tan, who is competing at her fourth Games.
Japan hopes the Games will act as a catalyst for change in societal attitudes towards disability in the country, where discrimination remains rife.
Seiko Hashimoto, Tokyo 2020 organising committee president, said at the ceremony: “Para-athletes testify to our infinite potential as human beings, and to our power to go beyond our limits. Please give us hope and the strength to stand tall as we witness all you have overcome to reach this stage.”
The organisers admitted last week that the Paralympics will be held under "very difficult" circumstances as Japan's health situation has worsened since the Olympic Games ended on Aug 8 and hospitals in the host city are filled to capacity.
The Japanese government and the Tokyo Metropolitan government appealed on Monday to hospitals in the capital to accept more Covid-19 patients as increasing infections have made access to care increasingly difficult.
"I'm a little concerned about holding the Paralympic Games. Still, I hope the athletes will do their best," said 52-year-old office worker Chika Sasagawa.
While the number of athletes and officials travelling from abroad is less than a third of that during the Olympics, Japan reported more than 25,000 daily cases on three days last week, up from less than 15,000 when the Olympics ended earlier this month.
The Paralympics organisers have said they plan to implement the same Covid-19 protocols or "playbook" as the ones used during the Olympics.
Frequent testing and other restrictions, such as limiting the movement of athletes and officials, proved to be effective in minimising infection risks during the Games, they have added.
Like the Olympics, the Paralympics will also take place generally without spectators and the organisers have asked the domestic Games officials to avoid eating out or drinking in groups.
The Olympics organisers reported 404 Games-related infections. They carried out close to 600,000 screening tests with an infection rate of 0.02 per cent.
Japan has extended Covid-19 emergency measures in the capital and other regions that will run through the Games.
About 88 per cent of thousands of athletes and officials attending the Games have been vaccinated, the International Paralympic Committee spokesman Craig Spence has said, though a number of local volunteers are yet to be fully vaccinated.
"Compared to the Olympics, the Covid infections have spread further now. I have many concerns but I believe that Japan as a host country is making all the efforts so that athletes can compete safely in the Games," said Tokyo resident Kana Matsuyama, 45.