Why these Paralympics were a game-changer

Tokyo: Australia’s Paralympic team celebrated the end of a memorable 12 days of competition on Sunday afternoon with a well-earned feast in the village.

Athletes and staff did their best to devour 500 meat pies, 30 sushi platters, 400 ice creams, 10 kilograms of chips — plus biscuits, muffins and fruit platters — all washed down with cold beer and wine.

Grant ‘Scooter’ Patterson is the loveable larrikin of the Australian Paralympic swim team. Credit:Delly Carr

A day earlier, wheelchair tennis star Dylan Alcott, in his final outing as a Paralympian, ate chicken nuggets off his gold medal and cracked a Corona within minutes of getting off the court.

These Paralympics were an absolute joy to cover. Reporters are usually discouraged from using adjectives such as ‘incredible’ and ‘inspiring’ to describe the performances of athletes with a disability, but there was a noticeable shift this time around.

Stories of hardship, adversity, feats of bravery and near-death experiences were central to storytelling at these Paralympics but they were certainly not the be-all and end-all. Results mattered.

“The coverage has focused very much on what they can do, rather than their disability,” said the team’s chef de mission Kate McLoughlin.

‘We’ve always seen every four years that element of ‘wow, they’re amazing’ but this has gone to another level.′

Unbelievable athletic feats captured the public’s imagination and, as Alcott pointed out, interviews afterwards were what really resonated with viewers at home.

Australia finished eighth on the medal tally with 21 golds, 29 silvers and 30 bronze medals, for a total of 80 medals.

In Rio, the team picked up 81 medals in almost identical fashion – 22 gold, 30 silver and 29 bronze.

In terms of golds, it was Australia’s worst haul since 1980, but after a hugely disruptive 18 months, never has the colour mattered less.

Australia’s Jaryd Clifford won silver in Men’s 5000m — despite collapsing across the line. Credit:Getty

Exhibit A: Jaryd Clifford, who was tipped to win multiple gold medals here. Slumped on a chair, happy tears streaming down his face, this is what he said in the mixed zone after winning a third medal in the marathon.

“I thought I would leave these Games absolutely shattered if I didn’t win a gold medal,” Clifford said. “But sport is so much more than that. [After a silver in the 5000m] I was shattered. In my heart, it did feel like missing that gold was going to be one of the hardest things to get over.

“But you know what … I finished two marathons in 2021. I wasn’t supposed to run a marathon until 2024. If you’d told me that at the start of the year, I would have said ‘you are f—ing kidding’.

“I’ve played team sports and I’ve never felt the same way as this Paralympic team feels. Everyone gets around each other and it’s the most special thing.”

Tokyo says goodbye to an Olympic and Paralympic year like no other.Credit:Getty

This was a Paralympics where stories stumbled into your lap no matter where you looked.

I loved Rowan Crothers’ celebration on top of the lane rope. I loved Darren Hicks’ road race. I loved that Clifford didn’t give up in his 5000m in scorching heat.

I loved watching the Belles win their first goalball match in 25 years. I loved seeing Grant ‘Scooter’ Patterson winning his first medals and his hilarious Borat impersonations.

I loved the dignity Lauren Parker showed after her brutal second place in the triathlon. I loved Alcott and Heath Davidson showing what mateship is all about in the quad doubles.

Dylan Alcott after his men’s quad singles gold medal in Tokyo. Credit:Getty

I loved Daniel Michel letting out a big “yeah baby” en route to Australia’s first boccia medal since 1996 and the joy in his voice after being read out a text message from a childhood hero in Steve Waugh.

I loved the moment three-time gold medallist Will Martin realised he was a bloody good swimmer. I loved Timothy Disken winning a silver medal for his mother who died while he was here.

I loved seeing Ben Popham cry four tenths of a second after winning gold. I loved Col Pearse crying for four minutes on live TV.

I loved shot-putter Todd Hodgetts ripping his shirt off and screaming, ‘this is what it’s all about!’

Ellie Cole enters the stadium during Sunday’s closing ceremony in Tokyo.Credit:Getty

What I didn’t love was Michael Roeger apologising for his marathon performance on Sunday. As outstanding Channel Seven reporter Matt Carmichael quickly reminded Roeger, he did his country proud and an unfortunate injury was out of his control.

These were moments – among many others – that will live long in the memory of Australians with new heroes.

But undoubtedly the sliding doors moment came last Thursday when medal bonus parity was achieved with the Olympians. I will never forget hearing what that meant for veterans like Alcott and Ellie Cole.

It was fitting that Cole carried the Australian flag at the closing ceremony on Sunday evening. She even rang close friend Cate Campbell on Sunday afternoon for some tips.

Sunday’s closing ceremony in Tokyo.Credit:Olympic Information Services

McLoughlin, the boss of an incredibly difficult operation to get athletes in and out safely, may have been the proudest person in Tokyo on Sunday.

“I can’t put into words how proud I am of the team,” McLoughlin said.

“I am thrilled that so many eyeballs got to see our athletes. It’s not a surprise people have fallen in love with our team because I’ve been living and breathing Paralympic sport for the last 13 years.

“We’ve always seen every four years that element of ‘wow, they’re amazing’ but this has gone to another level. The level of acknowledgment of them as elite athletes and recognition of what’s possible has been huge heading into [Brisbane] 2032. How many kids have watched these Games and thought ‘wow this could be me’.

Hotel quarantine will be mentally taxing for athletes but McLoughlin revealed conversations were being had with government to possibly organise home quarantine for some athletes with severe disabilities who require carers. Rightly so.

There was good news too, with Disken’s family postponing his mother’s funeral until he is out of quarantine.

When the world goes back to normal, these athletes deserve a ticker tape parade, for they have warmed the country’s collective soul with grace, integrity and some good old-fashioned Aussie passion in a couple of weeks this reporter won’t ever forget.

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