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What the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Medal Table Really Says

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By Michael Houston |

Considering my dad used to call me “stats” as a child because pages of data fascinated me, it is no surprise that I fawn over medal tables.

During my time at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games with my colleague Geoff Berkeley, we came across quite a few interesting facts when updating the table on the daily. A running joke centred around Ukraine loving to be the “first losers” as they racked up the silver medals.

They had the second-most silvers with 47 – only behind China – and finished sixth on the table. Geoff spoke to a delegation team member during his time there and they admitted it was frustrating how many potential golds ended up falling short, but insisted they were not worried with the total number of medals won.

And they were right to be satisfied – it was Ukraine’s second highest medal tally only after Rio 2016, where a lot of nations’ had juiced up numbers due to the absence of the Russian team – or the Russian Paralympic Committee (RPC) – as they were known as at Tokyo 2020.

However, not every nation has a gleaming record when it comes to Para sport and the chasm between Olympic medal table rivals China and the United States is one of the most notable.

China could have figuratively put their feet up, poured a glass of wine and smoked a cigar by day seven of the Paralympics, having ended the Games with 96 gold medals, more than double of second place. Conversely, the US won a still-respectable 37 golds for third in the standings behind Britain, a gold and three silvers ahead of the RPC.

It is not a poor result for the Americans – it is their best performance at the Summer Paralympics since Beijing 2008. But it shows the gap between disabled and non-disabled athletes in the country.

While the US Olympic team has always finished in the top three at the Games, the last time the US Paralympic team topped the medal table was at Atlanta 1996 and has since had a highest finish of third.

Someone across the pond will be more qualified on the reasons why this is the case, but the US’ healthcare system could play a part in this inequality in one of the most developed nations in the world.

Rights for disabled people in the country were improved in 1990 with the passing of the Americans with Disability Act, which tackled discrimination towards the community. Census records showed that 50.2 per cent of disabled people were employed in 1991, but by 2010 it had dropped to 41.1 per cent, nearly doubling the rate of fall compared to non-disabled people. 

Add to that the cost of insurance, which the National Disability Institute cites as a costly expenditure, and you have a nation of people who have major disadvantages to their lives on top of the barriers they would face in any other country.

The United Kingdom’s Department for Work and Pensions has been a bogeyman in the country because of the number of disabled people affected by its ruthless welfare system, leading to the deaths of many of the most vulnerable people in society.

Yet, unlike the US, there is a safety net established by universal healthcare and, most importantly, a public-funded support system for athletes, which has reflected in the country’s performances.

It is fair to say that a strong and supportive funding model can work even with domestic issues that need to be addressed.

Japan also had a good Paralympic Games, but it was far from the heights of its Olympic team, which finished third on the medal table. Placing 11th, the hosts won 13 gold medals – more than the last three Games combined – to have its best result since Athens 2004.

Considering Japan won no gold medals in Rio, it was an impressive feat, but one that shows a glaring difference between its two teams. 

It is a very accessible country, but criticism came from the disabled community over the continual denial people have towards them. In 2018, the Japanese Government was found to have manipulated the figures by falsely registering 3,700 employees to meet disability quotas, instead of hiring those people. If that is happening at the top, you cannot expect it not to be an issue further down.

Meanwhile, Canada and South Korea continued their downward trajectories at the Paralympics, despite the former having their most successful Olympics in 29 years.

But not all nations have struggled against expectations.

India won five golds in Tokyo – more than they had won at every Games before this year – and took home a total of 19 medals, but a lot of that comes down to investment, in the number of athletes as much as the finances backing them.

India took 54 athletes to the Paralympics – more athletes than they had for the previous five Games combined. This yielded results for a country that had only won 12 medals at the Paralympics ever before this summer.

Iran had its best Games to date with a joint record of 12 gold medals. Most notably, three women from the country became Paralympic champions at a single Games for the first time. Considering the distinct inequality for women there, this was another important step towards the acceptance of women as athletes.

Jordan went 21 years without a Paralympic gold medal when they first claimed one at Sydney 2000, and added an impressive four more with three of these coming in powerlifting. Just as impressive was Azerbaijan’s 14 golds, mammothing the nine won by the nation prior to the most recent Games.

They swept up at judo, winning six gold medals, which shows investment in the right places can propel you up the rankings, much like Ihar Boki did in swimming for Belarus with his five golds. Without his Paralympic titles, Belarus would have dropped from 27th to 71st.

Interestingly, the Nordic nations are regarded as some of the best places to live in the world, yet have seemed to underperform at the Games in recent years. Between Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland, they won seven gold medals combined.

Despite disability awareness, rights and welfare all playing a large part in the development of Para athletes, sometimes it comes down to funding or having the right athletes at the right time take up the sport. After all, oil rich Qatar and Saudi Arabia won just one bronze medal each during the Games despite having what seems like infinite resources.

Let’s finish on a light note: Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Montenegro and Oman all won their first Paralympic medals at Tokyo 2020; and Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka won their first Paralympic golds at the Games too.

Notably, El Salvador and Oman won their first Paralympic medal before their first Olympic one.

However, a medal table should not be treated as gospel – the British athletics community believed a crisis was incoming after the country failed to win Olympic gold in the sport for the first time since Atlanta 1996, but failed to factor in Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Dina Asher-Smith’s injuries, with the two athletes being the best chances of a gold medal from the team.

Just like that, some nations will have valid excuses for a natural downturn; others, meanwhile, are not focused on results but personal performances and athletes’ well-being.

What is clear, is athletes need support to continue developing into future Olympic and Paralympic champions, and funding, disability welfare, society’s treatment of disabled people and accessibility are all key factors that make that development just a little bit easier.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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