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Canada captures 21 medals in the most challenging Paralympic Games in history

With the pandemic, many athletes spent the past year and a half concerned if they would get to compete at all
‘See you in Paris 2024’ message on the floor of the stadium at the end of the Closing Ceremony in the Olympic Stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021. (Joe Toth for OIS via AP)

The cauldron was extinguished Sunday in Tokyo to end the most unique Paralympic Games in history — and crossing the finish line on a Games fraught with uncertainty was a major victory in itself.

Led by swimmer Aurelie Rivard and wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos, Canada captured 21 medals, including five gold, in Tokyo, eight less than the Canadian team won five years ago in Rio.

But with Canada’s careful approach to the COVID-19 pandemic that made training difficult, and competing nearly impossible, over the past year-and-a-half, Canada didn’t set a medal goal in Tokyo. A shared sentiment among athletes was an overwhelming appreciation for being able to compete at all.

“I’m so fortunate that the country of Japan decided to go through with everything,” said middle-distance runner Nate Riech, who won gold in the 1,500 metres in his Paralympic debut, Canada’s final medal in Tokyo. “You never know if you’re going to be as fit or injury-free in three years time (for the Paris Paralympics), your next opportunity.”

Lakatos, a 41-year-old from Dorval, Que., carried Canada’s flag into the closing ceremony dressed in the Canadian team denim jacket and white jeans. Lakatos raced to four silver medals in his six races, capping his gruelling schedule with a fourth-place finish in the marathon just hours before arriving at the closing festivities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his congratulations to Canada’s athletes.

“Over the past two weeks, Canada’s best Paralympians went for the gold, and showed the world what it means to be Canadian,” he said in a statement. “The victory of these Paralympians is a victory for all Canadians — for close friends, family, and their communities, to all those who watched from home.

“Today, as we watched the maple leaf flag fly at the closing ceremony, we were all given a moment of pride and reflection on what we can achieve with hard work and perseverance. Once again, congratulations to Team Canada. You have made us all so proud.”

Rivard, a 25-year-old from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., won five medals, including two gold despite the fact the Games marked her first time competing since the pandemic began. Pandemic protocols prevented her from even racing against teammates in practice.

“Athletes have fought so hard to be here. They have had to adapt. We’ve had athletes create training environments in their homes. It’s been a hard, hard year,” said Stephanie Dixon, Canada’s chef de mission in Tokyo, and a 19-time Paralympic medallist.

“Medals are great, but that is not the best measure of success for these Games.”

More than 4,500 athletes from 162 countries competed in the biggest Paralympics in history, a remarkable feat considering the immense challenges created by the pandemic. A collective concern amid Paralympians was that a COVID-19 outbreak at the Olympics a month earlier would cancel the Paralympics completely.

“We’re all pinching ourselves a little bit,” Dixon said. “Tokyo 2020 has done an incredible job to create a safe environment for our athletes, as well as an environment where they could perform to the best of their ability.

“I am just very impressed at the level of execution for these Games, considering what we’re experiencing globally, and what’s happening even in Japan, I felt like we were bubble-wrapped.”

Nearly eight years to the day that Tokyo was awarded the Olympics and Paralympics, both Games were held during a state of emergency amid surging COVID-19 cases in Japan. Events were held in arenas void of fans.

“What more can I say than ‘Arigato Tokyo,’” said Andrew Parsons, president of the International Paralympic Committee. “Together against the odds, we did it. The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games have not just been historic, they have been fantastic.

“In 12 magical days, athletes gave the world confidence, happiness and hope. Athletes broke records, athlete won hearts, athletes opened minds, importantly athletes changed lives.”

Canada, long a front-runner in the Paralympic movement, didn’t win a medal in a team sport in Tokyo. The women’s sitting volleyball came the closest, finishing a best-ever fourth. Rivard and Lakatos will both take time to decide whether to continue competing through the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.

But Karen O’Neill, the CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, believes the team’s future is bright. Some 55 athletes in Tokyo were making their Paralympic debut, including Riech. Swimmer Danielle Dorris, who won two medals including a gold, is just 18 years old.

“We went to great efforts to say we were not defining success by just the medal count on these Games,” O’Neill said. “Our circumstances for both qualification, competition and classification were quite different from many of the other countries this last 18 months. We had restrictions, and for all the right reasons, in Canada.

“And if I look at the top-five, top-eight finishes in addition to the medals, there’s a lot of transition going on now, so for the longer-term, especially given the year we’ve come out of, this bodes really well for both Paris and Los Angeles (in 2028).”

The Games closed with a festive ceremony entitled “Harmonious Cacophony,” capped off with a blast of fireworks that spun around the top of the National Stadium.

A big positive was these Paralympics set broadcasting records for hours of coverage.

“So, whenever I looked up at the empty stands, each seat to me represented about 1,000 people that were viewing it from home which was pretty special,” Dixon said.

“You didn’t feel solo holding that flag in the stands for sure,” O’Neill added. “I would say all of Canada was with us.”

The one huge negative on both the Olympics and Paralympics was the absence of fans due to the pandemic. Protocols also prevented family members from travelling to Japan.

The athletes, however, were united in their praise for the Japanese people.

“Thank you to Japan. They’ve done such a great job, and without them, athletes like us who train our whole lives wouldn’t be able to do this,” Lakatos said of the organizers and volunteers.

He had kind words for the Tokyo residents who weren’t able to participate in the Games.

“I got back to the athletes village at around 10:30 at night (after his silver medal in the 800 metres), I was at the side parking lot, and there were families, young kids just waiting for a wave,” he said. “They didn’t even know who would be coming into the village.

“So, it would have been incredible without COVID — but even with COVID, it was.”

The Canadian Paralympic Committee now pivots to the 2022 Beijing Games, which open March 4.

O’Neill said Canada’s winter athletes have faced similar challenges around the pandemic as their summer counterparts. She added, however, that Tokyo was a huge learning experience and the team will travel to Beijing armed with much more knowledge around safety and protocols.

“It was nice to get to Tokyo and see what the day-to-day reality was,” she said. “so, I think that leaves everybody with a more positive kind of view towards plans and lessons learned for Beijing.”

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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