Paralympics – Health and Safety – The Covid Challenge

Health and safety concerns surround the start of the Tokyo Paralympics, despite there not being a major outbreak of Covid infections during the main Olympics which finished earlier this month. The concerns are that case numbers have increased in the areas surrounding the Paralympic venues in the past couple of weeks and that some Paralympians may be at greater risk of suffering serious symptoms because of their underlying health conditions. The pandemic has disproportionately affected people with disabilities who number 1.2 billion people, 15% of the world’s population.

Beginnings of the Paralympics

The origin of the Paralympics can be traced back to the aftermath of the second world war. At Britain’s Stoke Mandeville Hospital, a German neurologist, Dr Ludwig Guttmann, was looking for ways to help the rehabilitation of his wheelchair-bound paraplegic patients, all Royal Air Force veterans with spinal cord injuries. On the day of the Opening Ceremony of the London 1948 Olympic Games, Dr Guttmann organised an archery competition for wheelchair athletes which he named the Stoke Mandeville Games. They involved 16 injured servicemen and women.

These games became the International Stoke Mandeville Games in 1952 when a team of veterans from the Netherlands competed alongside British teams. The ninth annual International Stoke Mandeville Games took place in Rome in 1960, six days after the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. They became known as the Paralympic Games.

The Covid Challenge

This year the Paralympics will comprise 539 medal events involving 22 sports. Taekwondo and badminton have been added to the program for the first time. All these events have to be Covid safe. Around 5,000 athletes from 161 countries, including a small refugee team, are competing at the Paralympics. The pandemic has prevented athletes from several countries from making it to Japan. As a result, the countries represented is just below the record 164 that attended the 2012 London Games.

The athletes and officials that have arrived find themselves in an area of Japan suffering rapidly escalating numbers of Covid infections. Tokyo has been in a state of emergency since July 12th and together with other venue locations is reporting record numbers of daily cases. Recent daily infection figures have regularly been over 5,000, nearly triple what they were before the main Olympic Games began on July 23rd. Before the start of those games, health officials considered a figure of 2,000 daily cases a worst-case scenario.

The rate of new infections has put Japan’s medical system under immense strain. A shortage of hospital beds has skyrocketed the number of people recuperating at home. The Japanese Government has recently expanded the state of emergency covering Tokyo and five other areas to seven more prefectures and extended the proposed end date of the state of emergency beyond its original August 31st deadline to September 12th.

The Countermeasures

International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and Tokyo 2020 officials have said the Paralympics will essentially follow the same precautions and health and safety rules observed during the Olympic Games staged in July. Athletes are being tested for Covid daily and must wear face masks and maintain social distancing, even when they are in the 44-hectare athletes’ village.

Just like the Olympics, all the events will be staged behind closed doors to prevent the spread of the virus, even at the 68,000 capacity main stadium. However, this time a government-supported education initiative will see up to about 140,000 school children, mainly from the Tokyo area, allowed to watch the events at the venues. However, most of the students are unvaccinated.

Playbooks

A summary of the overall game plan to ensure the safety of participants at the Olympic and Paralympic Games can be found in several Playbooks. These were developed jointly by the International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee and are based on the extensive work of a task force that included the World Health Organization.

There are Playbooks for athletes and officials, press, broadcasters, marketing partners, the workforce employed in staging the games, and others. The Playbook for athletes and officials outlines what they should be doing to keep themselves and others safe, starting 14 days before they travelled to Tokyo. It also outlines the principles of mask-wearing, minimising physical interaction, thinking hygiene at all times, and the use of the Japanese test, trace and isolate system to break the chain of virus transmission. There is also a section on the consequences of not respecting the rules in the playbook.

Paralympics GB

The Paralympics GB ‘stop the virus’ programme has been following a regime similar to that which ensured that Team GB landed in Japan Covid-free and that none of the GB athletes had to withdraw from July’s Olympic Games because of infection or as the result of close contact with an infected person. For the duration of the Paralympics, the GB delegation of over 600 athletes, coaches, and support staff will have access to rapid PCR tests, which can produce results in 40 minutes. The healthcare company running the tests is the same one that ran the testing regime for Team GB during July. It has been using its own courier services to ensure speed and reliability in delivering and collecting testing kits and processing the results in laboratories capable of handling 500,000 samples per day.

Tokyo is the first city to host the Paralympics twice, having first hosted it in 1964. Then twenty‑one countries and 375 athletes took part. Today’s Paralympics has probably grown to an extent that no one could have predicted 57 years ago and is being staged under challenging conditions that no one could have envisioned. Whether this year’s Paralympics will be remembered as being as successful as the original Tokyo Games will depend on the success of the health and safety measures in place today.