The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games have continued an incredible summer of sport.
The tournament, which kicked off on Aug. 24 and will end this Sunday, includes events as wide-ranging as archery to wheelchair curling and will see 4,400 competitors from over 160 countries take part.
And while it hasn’t been possible for crowds to watch at the stadiums themselves due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all is not lost. Billions of people have tuned in to TV coverage and many of the athletes have shared their stories from the events on social media too.
And whether it’s the astonishing journey of the first woman refugee para athlete to compete, or the swimmer reaching millions of followers on TikTok to teach fans about her disability, it’s clear that the Paralympics provides an important platform to celebrate the ambitions, strengths, and passions of the athletes involved.
Here are just a few of the brilliant Paralympic athletes you need to know about, and how they’re championing the mission to achieve equality for all.
1. Alia Issa
In 2021 Alia Issa made history as the first woman para athlete to compete as one of the six members of the Refugee Paralympics team at Tokyo. The 20-year-old grew up in Greece as a Syrian refugee and is now competing in the women’s club throw event on the world stage.
Issa contracted smallpox when she was four years old, leading her to be hospitalised and using a wheelchair as a result of long-term damage affecting her movement and speech. She was bullied at school because of her disabilities, but she says she is determined to show women with disabilities and women refugees the opportunities that can come through sports.
Here she is in action.
2. Abbas Karimi
Abbas Karimi, 24, has faced some huge challenges in his life. He was born without arms and diagnosed with congenital limb deficiency in Kabul, Afghanistan. Due to insecurity his family fled Afghanistan when he was 16 and he lived in four different refugee camps before settling in the US.
Karimi has said that his family were very worried about his future when he was born but he discovered swimming when he was 13, after his brother built a pool near where they lived, and he fell in love with it. He continued to swim and train once he was in the US. "This is my freedom and I [feel] reborn every time I jump in the water,” he said.
Follow his story of joining the team that represents refugees and asylum seekers everywhere at the Paralympics via the UNHCR’s (the United Nations refugee agency) TikTok account.
3. Olivia Breen
Olivia Breen has joined some of her fellow Team GB competitors, including Maria Lyle and Sophie Kamlish, in making hilarious videos for followers documenting their time in Tokyo. The 25-year-old has competed in the 100 metre sprint and the long jump in the games this year, winning Bronze in the latter.
Breen has cerebral palsy and is also deaf. She’s been using her social media presence to answer questions about her disability and explain some of the difficulties she faces, such as no longer being able to rely on lip-reading during the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone has been wearing masks.
Her and team mates’ clips have helped provide a sneak peek behind the scenes of the Games as well as helping their audience better understand disabilities.
4. Ntando Mahlangu
Ntando Mahlangu is a rising star of South African para athletics. He won the World Championships of his track race, the 200 metre sprint in 2019, and has so far already picked up a gold medal in the men’s long-jump at Tokyo 2020.
Mahlangu, 19, was one of nine global Paralympians to feature in the Netflix documentary about the founding of the Paralympic Games, Rising Phoenix. In the film, he describes the difficulty of being born with congenital limb deficiency and having both his lower legs amputated at age 12, while growing up in rural South Africa.
“Usually back in the rural areas they would take the children and they would put them away, because the family thinks it’s a curse or something, to have a disabled child,” Mahlangu said. Getting prosthetic legs was a game changer for him, however, and he started running — now he wants to change attitudes and is using his platform to raise awareness.
“My goal is to make sure that people all over Africa are treated equally with able bodies,” he said in an interview. “And treated equally means giving people opportunities. It doesn’t have to be athletics-wise, it can be jobs, it can be giving the people equipment to be able to do anything that their mind puts them to.”
You can follow his journey on Instagram.
5. Anastasia Pagonis
At just 17, New Yorker Anastasia Pagonis is a rising star in athletics. She has already made waves at her Paralympic debut by winning gold in the 400 metres freestyle swim.
Pagonis is visually impaired as a result of an autoimmune disease and started swimming regularly when she began losing her sight at age 12. She’s also something of a TikTok star, having amassed 2 million followers on the app.
Her funny, sweet videos focus on her sports training, dance routines, her guide dog Radar, as well as educating followers about what it is like to live with blindness. She’s a huge advocate for people with disabilities and for Paralympic sport.
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6 & 7. Hossain Rasouli and Zakia Khudadadi
Hossain Rasouli and Zakia Khudadadi both had a particularly challenging entry to the Paralympics this year.
Rasouli, a sprinter who lost his left hand after being injured by a mine explosion, and his teammate Khudadadi, a Para-Taekwondo practitioner, were evacuated out of Afghanistan on Saturday, days after they initially planned.
Rasouli, 26, had missed his sprint event due to the difficulties trying to get out of Kabul following the Taliban takeover, but took part in the long jump instead — having had just 90 minutes to practice.
Khudadadi meanwhile is only the second woman athlete to ever represent Afghanistan at the Paralympic Games, after Mareena Karim competed in 2004, and has broken with conversative tradition to pursue martial arts as a woman with disability. When it looked like she might not be able to reach the Games because of the security crisis, she was determined to continue.
“I went through many ups and downs to reach this place. I went through many things day and night to reach this place and it's not fair to stop it here,” she said in a video. “I urge you all, from the women around the globe, institutions for the protection of women, from all government organizations, to not let the rights of a female citizen of Afghanistan in the Paralympic movement to be taken away, so easily.”
8. Oksana Masters
Oksana Masters is para athletics power-house having won five medals across four different sports over the years — including her gold medal win this week for para-cycling.
Masters, 32, is a double-amputee after she was born with defects believed to be related to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident. She lived in orphanages in Ukraine until she was seven, before being adopted by her US parents.
As well as competing in both winter and summer Games, she is also active on social media, raising awareness and educating fans about what it’s like to use prosthetic limbs.
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