Paralympics 20XX: The only thing certain is nothing is certain
Paralympics 20XX: The only thing certain is nothing is certain
It was supposed to be the crowning event in para sports – Tokyo 2020. But now the Games have been postponed until 2021 according to the IOC announcement on March 24th. This ended a period of uncertainty for the athletes who trained for late summer 2020. REHACARE.com asked Christiane Reppe, Hans-Peter Durst, and David Behre for their take on the situation, wondered what comes next for these athletes, and learned why the new date set for the summer of 2021 won’t solve all problems.
The ball rests. But he's not the only one. The major sporting events of 2020 are postponed. Four years after the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, things will not continue in Tokyo. Whether the 2021 Games can really take place as planned remains to be seen.
Even the world’s greatest sport – European football – delayed its scheduled big summer event – the 2020 UEFA European Championship – until next year and this decision was made much faster than the call made by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Admittedly, the Olympic and Paralympic Games were THE major sporting events scheduled in 2020 and they are only held every four years. Still, one might criticize the fact that the IOC waited until March 24th before it finally announced its decision to postpone the event. Meanwhile, athletes had already been unable to properly prepare and get in shape for the Games. After all, training centers had already been closed for some time, and qualification tournaments had also been canceled long beforehand. "A decision must now be made to allow Paralympic athletes around the world to practice social responsibility – and not have to worry whether this might potentially jeopardize their dream of successfully participating in the Paralympics. There are now more important problems in the world than sport," German Parathlon athlete Niko Kappel said in a press release shortly before the official IOC announcement was made. The German Disabled Sports Association (DBS) also supported a postponement. "After the global corona crisis escalated again, we are of the opinion that there is no alternative to relocating the Paralympic Games. A decision must be taken immediately. We all need planning security, both our athletes and us as an association," DBS President Friedhelm Julius Beucher was quoted in the same press release. For some athletes, the time before March 24th and the official postponement of the Paralympics until the summer of 2021 was definitely a cliffhanger.
An unsettling time for athletes
German sprint runner David Behre already had a tough time preparing ever since the Rio 2016 Games. Injuries sidelined the 33-year-old, forcing him to be just a spectator at the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships and the 2018 World Para Athletics European Championships. His plan was to make a comeback in Tokyo 2020 and even got used to new running prostheses, which prompted a Paralympic change of rules. The former men’s 400-meter runner wanted to go for another medal in front of the Tokyo audience by switching to the 100-meter event, before officially ending his career. "When they flew us back from the training camp to Germany in early March, I already knew that this is a unique situation. But it was difficult to overcome the uncertainty during the two weeks where nobody knew what the next steps would be. It was stressful because there is essentially nothing you can do to change the outcome," says Behre.
Meanwhile, para cycler Hans-Peter Durst was forced to go straight into quarantine after training camp thanks to two trips to especially affected areas. Before the postponement was announced, the nine-time world champion had already consulted with his family and his team and decided that he would not take part in the upcoming Paralympics. "The decision was based on a sense of responsibility, conviction, and caution - we would have faced the consequences together." That’s why Durst had a more relaxed mindset when the IOC finally announced its decision. "Nobody is able to prepare at optimal levels, and I don't think it would be appropriate to hold the games this year amid the global crisis," says Christiane Reppe. The Para triathlete quickly recognized that the Games should not take place even before any official announcement was made. David Behre echoes the sentiment and believes postponing the Games was the right decision: "I don’t believe the global conditions in July and August would have warranted hosting a major sporting event in good conscience."
Even though the Games have been postponed until the summer of 2021, it doesn’t automatically solve all problems. For one, there is still no end in sight for the coronavirus crisis, even as some virus lockdowns are being eased at the moment. After all, many para-athletes are among the so-called coronavirus risk group. Paraplegic athletes like wheelchair basketball player Anna Breuer, or athletes with an autoimmune disease are especially at risk. Added to this is the fact that the athletes are unable to embark on their usual sport routines because training centers are still closed. Needless to say, there are still potential health risks once sport has turned back to normal. That’s because the coronavirus doesn't just magically disappear. The spread of contagion is unavoidable, especially in team sports. So how are athletes supposed to optimally prepare for these events? And can we really in good conscience expect athletes to participate in qualifying tournaments? After all, many Paralympic athletes have not yet secured their spots at this stage.
Training conditions also differ depending on the person and the sport. While individual sports make it a little easier to adapt training methods to reflect the current situation, things are very different when it comes to team sports. And even individual athletes differ in their approach. While Hans-Peter Durst is lucky to have a fully equipped home gym and an infrared sauna to promote regeneration, others face more challenging circumstances. While David Behre embarks on strength and stabilization workouts at home, the sprint runner has difficulties to get the proper training he truly needs.
Without a tartan track, training is difficult for athletes with prostheses. Asphalt is too hard, forest soil sometimes too dangerous.
"I also went outside for runs, but I quickly realized that I desperately need a tartan track. Any other surface puts too much strain on my body. Sprint runners cannot simply jog through a forest because we need sprint training, which can only be done on a certain surface."
The current situation is also not ideal for 400-meter sprint runner Johannes Floors. In an interview, the Paralympic SportsMan of the Year 2019 explains that the physical stress on his body is different depending on whether he runs on asphalt, on forest floor or a tartan track. The first surface is much harder, while the second one is dangerous as pine cones or anything slippery might cause him to fall.
Even if training conditions were back to normal for everyone, how can we protect people who are at higher risk from infections? It would not be fair and contradict the Paralympic spirit if affected athletes have to be in extended isolation, thus taking away their chance to qualify. Having said that, how can you possibly host safe and fair qualifying events this year? Concerned about the health of the athletes, DBS President Friedhelm Julius Beucher is also skeptical about a one-year postponement: "Has the virus peaked in the other countries already? Will we then be virus-free worldwide? This is a question that concerns me."
We also don’t know the ultimate economic impact of the virus. This aspect also affects the partners and sponsors of the athletes. Depending on the industry, respective companies and backers also suffer from the Corona outbreak and the measures taken to control it. Many find it hard if not impossible to even think about sport sponsorship given the current situation. However, some para athletes make a living through their sport. There are many unanswered questions and concerns in this area. Even though "various stakeholders have assured athletes that funding will continue, you need to have a conversation with personal sponsors at the appropriate time," says Christiane Reppe.
Ottobock is a major sponsor and partner of several athletes. "Our commitment and passion for the Paralympics is an inherent part of our company’s DNA," says Andrea Cremer, Project Manager Events & Sports Marketing. That is why the Paralympics are also ever present in the company. "Our employees are really looking forward to the Games. It creates motivation, inspiration and a sense of identity among our associates." Needless to say, the postponement of the Games also had an impact on the prosthetics company situated in Duderstadt. In response to the postponement of the Games, Professor Hans Georg Näder, owner and Chairman of the Board of Ottobock, said: "During this unprecedented crisis, we are sticking together. Postponing the Games is the right thing to do. At this time, it is crucial that we protect the well-being of the athletes, spectators and the global Paralympic Family." REHACARE.com sat down with the assistive device manufacturer to learn about the company’s original summer 2020 plans and discovered how its work in Lower Saxony has changed during the crisis. Find out more in our article "Coronavirus crisis strikes Paralympics: Ottobock embraces flexibility and fosters creativity".
Corona also has an impact on Ottobock and this not only affects the plans for the Paralympics.
The date may have changed, but the motivation remains
Despite so many unanswered questions and the fact that the International Olympic Committee still needs to review whether keeping the August 2021 date is actually feasible, there have been many positive developments in recent years. In Germany, for example, the German Paralympic Team relaunched as Team Germany Paralympics. One year before the scheduled 2020 Games in Tokyo, athletes with and without disabilities joined together under the "Team D" header. A clear statement made by the DBS and the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB), which also increases the visibility of Paralympic athletes and honors their past achievements.
Excited about this step, David Behre says: "We train as often and as hard as our colleagues from the Olympic squad. I sincerely hope that Olympic athletes don’t ever think para athletes try to steal their thunder. To ensure fair play, we will always have different assessments – based on the current status. Yet we still want our achievements to be honored and appreciated. If anything, I would like to see an increased public and sponsor awareness and appreciation of track and field athletics as a whole."
It seemed like his wish would come true in Tokyo. After all, in recent years, the visibility of the Paralympic movement had increased around the globe. This was also evident in ticket demand for the Games. Ticket sales were already in full swing by the end of 2019 and ticket demand at the time exceeded the ticket supply. Expanding media coverage also marked a well-deserved upswing. The IPC had likewise planned to provide more live formats than it had for the 2016 Rio event. Germany’s main television stations ARD and ZDF had already secured the broadcasting rights and intended to broadcast content live online and on TV. For all intents and purposes, these would have been the biggest Paralympics to date. A total of 4,400 athletes from 160 countries were scheduled to give their best and compete for medals in 22 disciplines.
Just like Hans-Peter Durst, Christiane Reppe does not yet believe that the Paralympics can take place next year. The restrictions and economic consequences will keep us busy for too long.
It would also have been a big stage for Behre to end his career. The sprint runner even prompted a rule change for his new prostheses. But the athlete took the past few weeks and made a very personal decision: "I decided to extend my career by one more year. I hope that the Tokyo Games will take place in 2021 and that I will be able to say – a postponed - goodbye to sports in an amazing venue."
However, both Christiane Reppe and Hans-Peter Durst don’t think that the Games will actually take place from August 24th to September 5th, 2021, as is currently planned. "When I watch the news and think further down the road, I am sure that major restrictions will be commonplace for some time to come. It’s also clear to me that competitions, events or a simple trip to the movie theater will not be an option in the foreseeable future," says the triathlete. Right now, she needs a special permit to enter the weight room at her club and can only use her handcycle and racing wheelchair at home via her indoor bike trainer. "Counting tiles in the swimming pool may not be possible indefinitely."
"I also don’t think we will return to friendly competitions in Tokyo in 2021," says Hans-Peter Durst, para cycler and former teammate of Reppe. Both athletes hope that the Games will eventually take place at the right time, proceed as scheduled, and under equal, fair, and safe conditions for all participants. It remains to be seen whether and when this will happen.
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com