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Para athletes should be taken seriously

DW's Stefan Nestler
Stefan Nestler
August 24, 2021

The Paralympics in Tokyo should not constantly be about the disabilities or fates of the athletes but about their performances, writes DW’s Stefan Nestler.

The Paralympics are taking place in Tokyo
Badminton features on the Paralympic program for the first time in TokyoImage: Fernando Vergara/AP Photo/picture alliance

In his own words, Marcus Rashford is a fan. "Guys, when does the paraolympics start?" the England international football player tweeted (he later admitted his spelling error). "Real life superheroes." 

The Manchester United striker wished a handful of athletes good luck in Tokyo with other tweets, including the youngest British Paralympics competitor, Ellie Challis. At 16 months old, she contracted meningitis, which resulted in both legs and both forearms having to be amputated. Challis is now 17 and swim,ming for Paralympic gold in Tokyo. 

There are few who wouldn't take their hats off for para athletes like her. Despite all the physical and other adversities, they have become competitive athletes and consistently pursued their dreams, which has now led them to the Games in Japan. 

But none of them would probably think of calling themselves "superheroes." Yes, sport has helped them to master aspects of life. It has given them self-confidence, let them experience community and feelings of happiness. But isn't the same true for every other successful competitive athlete?

Special athletes

"I don't feel like a disabled athlete; I'm just an athlete with a physical peculiarity," Rainer Schmidt, a multiple-Paralympic table tennis champion who was born without forearms, once told me. 

In 1992 in Barcelona, Schmidt had won gold in the singles after a final in front of 12,000 enthusiastic spectators. "Did I think about my disability during the match? Not a thought! Do I wish I could have played with arms at the Olympics? Not a chance!" wrote Schmidt later. "I played table tennis, only table tennis — nothing else. I stand at the table not as a disabled person, but as an athlete."

Stefan Nestler, DW Sport
Stefan Nestler, DW Sport

As an athlete who is focused on a goal, who has to produce an optimal performance at the decisive moment and keep any nerves in check in order to prevail. And who may end up with nothing after being unable to deliver that best performance or catch that little bit of luck.

Feeling the excitement, mourning the loss

There will be several such moments of victory and defeat, euphoria and disappointment in Tokyo. In this respect, the Paralympic Games are no different from the Olympic Games. However, there will probably be another discussion about the individual competition classes. 

The classification of disabilities is the permanent construction site of Paralympic sport — in contrast to other construction sites, however, it is one that is constantly shifting. And let's be honest, did anyone in the Olympic 100-meter race or the high jump discuss whether a centimeter difference in a person's height could be seen as an advantage?

Let's just root for the para athletes and cross our fingers that they can deliver their best possible performance. Let's celebrate their victories and mourn their defeats. Let's take them just as seriously as top athletes and not glorify them as "superheroes in real life" — even if they actually are!

This article has been translated from German.