With unique insight, Ekaterina Kuznetsova gives us a real life account from the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
When I first heard the news that I was going to cover the Tokyo Paralympic Games as a journalist, I couldn’t believe it. My job is connected to sports but to get to go to the Olympic Games is a pinnacle moment in your career. I never really envisioned going to the Paralympic Games either but always wanted to – maybe even more than the Olympic Games.
A little bit of back story: I started my career as a sports journalist during the Winter Olympic Games in 2014, when they were held in my native country, Russia. I was moved by the event’s spirit. I met so many different people and some of the world’s best athletes.
I realised – in the end it’s about everyone who is involved in the process and what we see on TV is just one small segment of a bigger puzzle. Being part of the Games is indescribable and I was intrigued by the event’s backstage – after all it’s not just athletes and journalists, but also technical support, volunteers, construction workers who build the venues and many more people being involved.
Since Sochi 2014 I have covered different Olympic and Youth Olympic events. In 2015 I worked at the Special Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Many people wonder what the difference between the Special Olympics and Paralympics is. Here is the answer: Special Olympics was founded in the US and it mainly focuses on the intellectual disabilities of the athletes.
The Covid Games
The Paralympic Games are organised in parallel with the Olympic Games. Comparable to the Olympic Games, the Paralympics are split into Winter Games and Summer Games, which alternately occur every two years.
Paralympic athletes compete in six different disability groups—amputee, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries, intellectual disability, and “les autres” (athletes whose disability does not fit into one of the other categories, including dwarfism).
When I took my flight to Tokyo I was both excited and nervous. Certainly, with the Covid-19 pandemic situation still being present in our daily lives everyone had to be extra careful and sensible.
A lot of controversy that surrounded the Games is understandable, but also think about athletes and para-athletes. They trained for this opportunity for the past five years. The Games were postponed from 2020 to 2021 but still went with the brand of ‘Tokyo 2020’.
Our bodies change on a daily basis – they are fragile constructions affected by so many factors – from what we eat to our stress levels, to how much we exercise.
Being a professional athlete – multiply what I just said by 10. Interviewing some high-profile athletes in the past – I had a chance to have a glimpse of what these people go through, how they train and I can’t put into words how much respect and admiration I have for these people.
Imagine how much sacrifice goes into being the best in the world at something. But even qualifying for the Games is an incredible achievement that requires a lot of daily work. Saying all that, I felt like the Paralympic Games are especially important.
On the plane, I was seated next to a para-swimmer from Czech Republic who doesn’t have arms. I was amazed by his positive spirit and even though we could not communicate in English a lot – he smiled and we had a small conversation.
The stories that I got to discover during the Paralympic Games later made me feel something every single day. I don’t want to use the word ‘inspiration’ in every single sentence, but there it was.
More than that I learned how normal disability is. The Paralympics issued a video campaign #WeThe15, which says that 15% of the world’s population experience some sort of disability. Just think about it. 15% of people in the entire world – it’s a huge number.
With so many disabled people in the world, often we don’t even see or interact with disabled people on a daily basis. The ‘invisibility’ of all of it makes me the saddest. However, after every interview I conducted at the Paralympics I was smiling.
I interviewed Brad Snyder, the US veteran who lost his vision during an explosion in Afghanistan in 2011.
In Tokyo 2020, he won his sixth gold medal at the Paralympics, while switching sports from swimming to triathlon. He told me: “For me it’s not about winning, but about everyday challenge.”
Brad was so strong and full of light, that I left the interview beaming for the rest of the day. The last thing I felt for him was pity or sadness.
Growing up in Russia, unfortunately, I did not know anyone with a disability. It felt like these people were isolated from the rest of the community – I didn’t meet them at school, or during any extracurricular activities.
I remember how at the Special Olympic Games in 2015, meeting people with intellectual disabilities I tried to be extra nice to them. Not encountering a disability before any of us can be ignorant.
I felt like these people are different, that they deserve special treatment. In reality, EVERY human being, with or without disability would benefit from kindness and wants to be treated as normal.
The Special Olympics is big in the US and I remember how my American friend told me back then: “I mentor one of Special Olympic athletes and we get to hang out with him. He has his mood swings but not because of his mental disability. He can be moody because he is a person. Sometimes he is in a good mood and sometimes in a bad. We fight sometimes and then become friends again. I don’t treat him any different to my other friends.”
I felt the same way at the Paralympic Games. All the para-athletes have stories to tell. Most of them went through some very difficult life situations, yet they don’t give up.
A lot of them have families and strong supporting communities, but our world still can be more inclusive – disability is seen as a weakness, when in fact, it’s an incredible strength and also a common thing to have.
Anastasia Pagonis, visually impaired para-swimmer from the US and social media influencer with more than two million followers, that I interviewed said it very well: ‘I am perfectly imperfect. It’s not me who needs to change, but the world. If the world was inclusive enough, I wouldn’t even have the disability.”
Ekaterina recorded vlogs while exploring Japan, Which you can find here on her YouTube channel.
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