Paralympic athletes to watch in Tokyo

The Tokyo Paralympic Games kicked off this past Tuesday with — for the first time — a prime-time slot on American network television. As William Brangham reports, it's part of the increasing interest and growth in these games. Motoko Rich, The New York Times' bureau chief joins Brangham to discuss why, and which athletes to keep an eye on.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, the Tokyo Paralympic games kicked off this week with, for the first time, a prime-time slot on American network television.

    As William Brangham reports, it's part of the increasing interest and growth in these Games.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    In addition to TV coverage, these Games have the largest number of athletes competing, including record numbers of women and LGBTQ athletes. At the opening ceremony, the refugee Paralympic team led the parade of over 4, 400 athletes.

    But like at the Olympic Games earlier this month, because of the pandemic, there were no spectators allowed in the stands.

    Motoko Rich is The New York Times bureau chief, and she joins me now.

    Motoko Rich, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    Tokyo just shifted from hosting the Olympic Games to now the Paralympic Games. And, as I was describing, there does seem to be this growing interest in these Games in particular. Do you have a sense of why that is? What do you attribute that to?

  • Motoko Rich:

    I think it's a lot of things.

    I mean, certainly, here in Japan, it's the second Paralympics. Back in 1964, when Tokyo hosted the Olympics, that was only the second time that there was a Paralympics that was paired with the Olympics, and it was in Tokyo. So, I think there's a long history here.

    I think there's been a very concerted effort. The organizers have kept saying, if the Paralympics are not successful, then we can't say that the overall Olympics have been successful. So, there have been a lot of advertisements, and so awareness has grown.

    And I think there's a bit more coverage. There has been prime-time coverage of the event. So it's definitely sort of out there in the ether in a way that it might not have been before.

  • William Brangham:

    And are there particular athletes or events that you have been paying attention to?

  • Motoko Rich:

    Well, I have spent a lot of time at the pool watching Abbas Karimi. He was one of the flag bearers for the Paralympic refugee team. He was born without arms.

    And, as it happens at the moment, he's the only Afghan athlete here, because the athletes from Afghanistan cannot safely leave Kabul to fly to Tokyo. We have been told that they have actually been evacuated, but we don't know exactly where they are. And we haven't — we don't even know whether they're going to make it to the Games. There's still a possibility that one or both of them that were on the delegation could make it to compete, but, at the moment, they're not here.

    And so he's the only one. So, he swam today in the butterfly. He did really well in his heat. He set a personal best. And then, in the final, he came in eighth.

  • William Brangham:

    But he still has another shot, I guess, next week?

  • Motoko Rich:

    He does. Yes, he does. He's going to be swimming the backstroke on Monday.

  • William Brangham:

    You wrote a beautiful profile of him and his journey to getting to Tokyo in The Times recently.

    And I'm just curious, how does someone living in four different refugee camps train for this kind of competition?

  • Motoko Rich:

    I think he — I mean, he has more determination than someone that I have ever met or talked to. He was very, very focused on the swimming.

    So, as soon as he got to the refugee camps — he'd already won a national championship in Afghanistan when he left just at age 16. So, as soon as he got to Turkey, he started talking to people, and I guess the folks at the refugee camps connected him with a coach, and he was willing to ride a bus one hour each way just to get one hour of swim time in.

    And he did that during COVID in Oregon as well, you know, drove with a coach for an hour-and-a-half just to get 45 minutes in. So, he's a very determined fellow.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what other events are you are you paying particular attention to?

  • Motoko Rich:

    Well, this is my first Paralympics, so I'm kind of interested in everything.

    But I went to a wheelchair rugby the other day, because the Japan team is very good and is expected to medal. And so I watched them play the Danish team, and they were, in fact, remarkable. And sort of learning the rules of wheelchair rugby, which is different. I mean, it has some resemblance to rugby, but it also has elements from other games. And it's also about a point system, depending on the disability of the players.

    So it was really fascinating to watch, and I'm hoping to go see more matches.

  • William Brangham:

    And how did the Japanese team do?

  • Motoko Rich:

    They won quite handily. And so they have got a couple more matches before the final, I think, is on Sunday.

  • William Brangham:

    COVID-19 obviously hung enormously over the Olympic Games, and now it's not like the pandemic has disappeared in Tokyo, or in Japan more broadly.

    Is it still casting — maybe a pall is the wrong word, but is it still casting a shadow over these Games?

  • Motoko Rich:

    I would say a pretty huge shadow, actually.

    Just today, for the very first time, Japan hit a record high of 2,000 cases of people who are severe enough to warrant intubation or being admitted to an ICU. So, that's a very worrying number, that that's been going up the whole time that the Games have been in town, including the Olympics.

    And Tokyo's hospitals are overburdened. It's now getting to the point where they're saying that, if you try to get into an ambulance, even for a non-COVID illness, they might not be able to find you a hospital bed.

    They are trying to ramp up vaccinations, but, just this morning, they opened a mass site for people, young people to get vaccinated. People were lining up at 1:00 a.m. in the morning and couldn't get in. It was sold — I don't even know what the word would be, but they were out of vaccine by 7:30 in the morning. And so they're trying to set up a lottery.

    So it's it's been very difficult.

  • William Brangham:

    Motoko Rich, Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times, thank you so much for your time.

  • Motoko Rich:

    Thank you for having me.

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