6 heartwarming moments from the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics

Team Afghanistan’s miraculous entrance, a finish-line proposal, and sport’s biggest-ever human rights movement

Emma Steen
Written by
Emma Steen
Staff Writer, Time Out Tokyo
Tokyo Paralymypics
Photo: Marcus Brandt/Getty Images Ibrahim Hamadtou of Egypt plays against Korea's Hong Kyu Park in the Class 6, Group E men's table tennis

There was a certain sense of despondency in the lead-up to the Tokyo 2020 Games. With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, pushing ahead with the zero-spectator sporting event felt like it could be a waste of an occasion that should otherwise be full of excitement and celebration. But as the Paralympics gained momentum, the long-awaited Games proved itself to be a powerful beacon of light at a time of fear and anxiety. 

Here are six extraordinary highlights from the Tokyo Paralympic Games – we don’t know about you, but they certainly lifted our spirits.

WeThe15 campaign 

Launched ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, WeThe15 is centred on recognising the estimated 1 billion people (that’s 15 percent of the global population) who have some form of disability. Described as sport’s biggest ever human rights campaign, the movement aims to amplify the voices of people with disabilities and eliminate the barriers that make it difficult for them to thrive in society. 

This promotional video produced by the campaign not only set the tone for the ensuing Paralympics, but also set the record straight, addressing the widespread misconception that living with a disability automatically makes someone an ‘inspiration’. It was a necessary message to remind the world to focus on similarities instead of differences and to reinforce the fact that it’s the discipline and tenacity of Para athletes that makes them heroes – not their disabilities.

Photo: Naomi BakerMiyuki Yamada of Team Japan celebrates winning silver in the Women's 100m Backstroke Final - S2

Oldest and youngest Paralympic champions

In a noteworthy double-triumph for Japan, the host country saw new records set for both its youngest and oldest ever Paralympic champions. First, 14-year-old Miyuki Yamada became the country’s youngest Paralympic medallist after taking silver in the women’s 100m backstroke S2 class final. Then, Para cyclist Keiko Sugiura secured not one, but two gold medals in the C1-3 class of women’s cycling making her Japan’s oldest gold medallist

In a moving and motivational interview with NHK, Sugiura said, ‘The chance to set a record for being the youngest will never come again, but the opportunity to set a new record for being the oldest will always be there’. It’s a welcome reminder that success has no age limit. 

2020 Tokyo Paralympics closing ceremony
Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Team Afghanistan’s triumphant arrival 

During the Paralympic opening ceremony, the Afghan flag was carried by a volunteer instead of the country’s two qualifying athletes, who were unable to travel to Tokyo amid the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Hopes for the team to compete were seemingly dashed, as even after Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli were evacuated from Kabul, Paralympic officials announced the pair would not be competing in the Games this year. Then, the impossible happened: the athletes arrived in Tokyo midway through the Games and Khudadadi was able to compete in her women’s taekwondo bout. 

Though Rasouli, a track runner, had missed the qualifying rounds and final for his own event, he was allowed to enter in the men’s long jump final for his maiden Paralympic Games. In a fitting end to the tale, the athletes were the ones to carry theAfghan flag through the stadium in the closing ceremony.

Two teams, one goal 

Australia’s Para cyclist Stuart Jones was finishing his last lap of the Fuji International Speedway in the men’s road race final when he noticed South Africa’s Toni Mould coming up behind him. Mould was a lap behind in the women’s road race final and was fighting to continue the race in pouring rain. Though he was competing for an entirely different team in a different event, Jones adjusted his speed to cycle alongside Mould and cheered her on. The act, as far as we’re concerned, was just as good as any gold medal victory.

Paralympic proposal

Running events for the visually impaired have an extra layer of intricacy to them – competitors are typically accompanied by a guide who must keep pace with the athletes and steer them along the track. It can take years for a visually impaired athlete and their guide to achieve the level of synchronisation required to compete in the Paralympic Games, so it’s natural for the competitive pairs to form a close bond. 

Right after crossing the finish line of the women’s 200m T11 class heat, however, Cape Verde sprinter Keula Nidreia Pereira Semedo and her guide Manuel Antonio Vaz da Veiga became the favourite dynamic duo of the Paralympics after Veiga got down on one knee to propose to Semedo. She said yes. 

Ibrahim Hamadtou’s unique no-arm table tennis style

Egypt’s Ibrahim Hamadtou played two sports growing up: table tennis and soccer. Hamadtou had lost his arms during a train accident at the age of ten, and although soccer was easier after that, he appreciated the challenge that table tennis posed for his disability. When he got in a disagreement with two of his friends over his table tennis prowess, he was all the more motivated to master the sport. 

Decades on, the 48-year-old husband and father of two has certainly proved his point, reaching in the table tennis quarter finals of the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Hamadtou didn’t advance to the semi-finals, but the impressive technique he used to play matches – holding the paddle in his mouth – was second to none. 

Want to revisit more highlights of the Paralympic Games? Here are our top moments from the closing ceremony, including an astonishing piece of choreography by French dancer Sadeck Berrabeh and the ceremonious extinguishing of the Paralympic cauldron. 

Tokyo 2020 Paralympics recap

Japan's final medal tally at the Tokyo Paralympics

Gold medallist Keiko Sugiura is now Japan’s oldest Paralympic champion

The famous Tokyo Olympic Village gyoza are available at the supermarket

14-year-old Miyuki Yamada becomes Japan’s youngest Paralympic medallist

7-Eleven now offers meals from the Tokyo Olympic Village

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