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IPC President Parsons "positive but realistic" about Tokyo Paralympics staging next year

26 August 2020

When Andrew Parsons, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President, looked ahead to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics a year ago there was only one item on his list of "issues" – the lack of accessible hotel rooms for disabled people. He was "super-confident" that the Japanese capital would deliver "an incredible Games".

But then issue number two came along – and it involved rather a lot more than accessible hotel rooms…

As this 43-year-old Brazilian takes stock once again coming up to a year to go to the re-arranged Paralympics, the reason for their postponement – the coronavirus pandemic – has edged above accommodation on the list of concerns.

There have been conflicting voices about the likelihood of the Games taking place during their second – and final – opportunity next year, from August 24 to September 5.

Last week Professor Yoshiharu Matsuura from the Research Foundation for Microbial Disease at Osaka University claimed on Sky News that the Japanese Government was putting "a large emphasis" on vaccine development ahead of the Games, adding: "They want to push ahead with the Olympics next year and they are saying the only way for that to happen is the vaccine."

But senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) official John Coates, the head of the Coordination Commission for Tokyo 2020, has disputed such claims.

So what is the view of the IPC President on the likelihood of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics taking place – and how crucial a factor will be the absence or presence of a vaccine?

"I am positive about the possibility of having the Games next year," Parsons said to insidethegames. 

"I think that some of the sport events going on round the world at this moment like the UEFA Champions League, the NBA (National Basketball Association) and other football leagues gives encouragement because we are also learning from that and what they are doing.

"Of course we know the difference in the size and magnitude of the events – in the Paralympics we have 4,350 athletes which is different from eight football teams in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League in Portugal.

"But there are some concepts that I think we can learn from them.

"No-one really knows the answer to your question. It is unpredictable at this point in time. But when people say 'we need a vaccine' – I think what we need is to say we need to have the virus controlled. We need to have the pandemic under control.

"Of course the vaccine will be the ultimate solution – or rather the vaccines, because you have multiple organisations trying to come up with them. But we may have scenarios where, because of the natural development of the pandemic, the numbers will go down.

"And when we take counter-measures we will be able to provide a safe environment for the athletes and everyone involved in the Games.

"So I think when people talk about the vaccine, yes, the vaccine is the strongest solution. But I think the concept is a little bit wrong. We need to have the virus, the pandemic, under control, or even better we need to provide a safe and healthy environment for the athletes and everyone involved in the Games.

"Some other measures can help in a scenario where we don't have as many cases around the world as we have now.

"But without the vaccine, could we hold the Paralympics Opening Ceremony tomorrow? The answer is no of course.

"With the level of the pandemic in the world it is impossible to think of organising and holding events like the Paralympics in the current circumstances.

"So I am optimistic, I am encouraged by recent competitions and also recent information and news about the development of vaccines, but we remain realistic. 

"We are planning for every possible scenario – when it comes to the Games, when it comes to what will happen with the Paralympic Movement in the case that we don't have the Games. We need to do that.

"So I am positive, but realistic."

While coronavirus and how to deal with it remains the overarching concern for the IPC regarding Tokyo 2020, there is a new, related side-issue that Parsons is at pains to point out.

"Of course we are in this exercise with Tokyo 2020 and the IOC of reducing the cost of the Games," he said. 

"President [Thomas] Bach has used the term 'Frugal Games'. So the Games will be simpler. 

"We will try to make some of the operations down-scaled, some of the unnecessary things that are not fundamental to run the Games, we won't have them.

"So they will be different Games in that sense. Not the concern, but the point of attention for us is that the down-scaling of the operation and the reduction of the sophistication of the Games will not affect accessibility.

"This is a point of attention. For example when we say, 'look, we will have a different transport system', you have to have in mind in the Paralympic Games that in terms of accessibility there is no halfway. Something is acceptable or it is not acceptable.

"You have different standards, but we cannot accept something that is not acceptable. And we will not lower our expectations when it comes to accessibility because that is what enables our athletes to move freely through the Village, through the venues, anywhere they want to go in the Games environment. So I think this is the main point of attention for us.

"I think the overall concern of all the points of attention is that we don't allow this down-scaling of the operation to impact accessibility. I think this is something that we have been saying to Tokyo 2020 quite openly.

"It is not that we are concerned it is going to happen but we need to monitor it. For instance, if the design of the venue is changing this way, and that way, they also have to take into account accessibility."

So, has this alertness been prompted by new plans?

"Not yet," Parsons replies. "We haven't seen any problem. Because one thing Tokyo 2020 is very good at is giving the same level of attention to the Olympics and the Paralympics, so when we have for example the seating bowl for any venue, it's looked at in the Olympic set-up and in the Paralympic set-up.

"And then throughout the years if we have any issues of concern with the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, whether it is with the seating bowl, or the changing rooms in some of the venues where you will have athletes in wheelchairs, we did all the work in the previous years, and I think they have learned a lot also.

"Since the pandemic we have not had details of any planned changes. But of course we raise this issue now because it is such a fundamental issue for the Paralympic Movement. We raise the issue of accessibility – reducing and down-scaling cannot mean things that will not be acceptable in terms of accessibility, whether that is a vehicle, or buildings, or venues or non-competition venues."

While the topic of accessible hotel accommodation appears less significant than it did a year ago, it still resonates strongly with Parsons – and it is an issue that has got more difficult.

Looking at the topic last year, he told insidethegames: "With every edition of the Games we have a different vision from the host city, a different picture of what they want to achieve.

"In Rio, the main focus was on the legacy of an accessible transport system.

"In Tokyo, because we don't have that need to the same level, we are focusing more on changing people's perceptions.

"The lack of accessible rooms is a symptom.

"In Japanese society they don't see disabled people travelling, either for pleasure or for business.

"So they don't understand why they would need an accessible hotel room if they don't travel.

"Why have a hotel room if these people should stay at home? They are not business travellers because they are not in the workplace.

"They stay at home, so they don't go to a beach, they don't go to resorts or tourist spots.

"It is a part of the culture, and that is a challenge. We want to change that culture."

A year on, changing that aspect of Japanese culture appears more difficult than ever.

"Of course the hotels is still an issue," said Parsons. "With the pandemic, we understand that tourism is not something really big in Japan at the moment, or anywhere in the world, so hotels are struggling, so to make an investment in terms of improving accessibility is maybe not something that is on their priority list.

"So we will keep monitoring that closely – we are working with Tokyo 2020 and working to identify the clients of the Games, and the stakeholders, who have any disability – where that is from the media, the sponsors or the International Paralympic Committee – and who are living outside the Village."

So would it be wrong to assume that the enforced delay of the Games has made this quest a little easier because of the extra time?

"No," Parsons responds. "It is the other way round, because of course most businesses around the world are thinking in terms of survival and not in terms of investment or future improvements.

"I think that for hotel owners in Tokyo it will not be their top priority to convert non-accessible rooms into accessible rooms if they don't foresee an increasing number of guests with disability coming.

"Of course the Games will be that moment, but for the future, there is so much uncertainty around the world right now that I don't think that this will be seen as an investment from their end, understanding the Japanese culture and the way they do business.

"But it was not a priority before for many of them. So it's more a case of fine-tuning the operation than having more accessible rooms, trying to maximise and have a better use of existing rooms."

At least the postponement of the Games has offered an opportunity to study more closely the weather conditions prevailing during the time of the originally scheduled Paralympics?

"Yes," Parsons agrees. "There are very few positive things coming out of the pandemic but one of them is that we will have an extra summer to collect data on the weather conditions in Tokyo. 

"So we will be noting the temperature, the humidity, the quality of the water in some of the venues. We have data from the ten previous summers, but of course if we can have another year's information it will be good."

By the same token, the delay has enabled both the IOC and the IPC to canvass opinion among athletes on the increasingly vexed topic of whether the Olympic Charter's Rule 50, which includes a curb on all protests at Olympic sites during the Games, should be amended or abolished.

In parallel with IOC efforts, the IPC has invited athletes wishing to take part in discussions to register through an Athletes' Council portal that will be open until tomorrow.

"The response has been very positive," Parsons says. "We are positively surprised by the number of athletes who want to be part of the consultation process. It is a process that will be led by the Athletes' Council and they have tried to engage with athletes in the four corners of the world.

"We have different levels of interest from different parts of the world. Normally athletes from the West tend to be more engaged in consultation processes like this. We are not talking about hundreds of athletes being involved – we are talking about dozens of athletes."

One challenge looms further down the line for Parsons – the current impasse over classification involving the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF).

The latter organisation is currently suspended from the Paris 2024 Paralympics unless and until it joins all the other International Federations (IFs) in becoming compliant with the IPC's reviewed and approved classification code.

There is a deadline of August 31. 2021 for this to be reversed.

An interim arrangement has been agreed for the Tokyo 2020 Games whereby the IPC has asked for the re-assessment of wheelchair basketball players with the least degree of impairment – officially in categories 4.0 and 4.5.

That process has led to nine players being declared ineligible for Tokyo 2020, with four other cases still pending, although a total of 119 players have passed the re-assessment process.

"What we are doing with the IWBF is implementing our own rules, rules that were approved by the membership," said Parsons. "We cannot have athletes at the Games that are not in line with our own rules.

"Can you imagine, for example, if the gold medal basket is scored by an athlete who is not from one of the ten eligible impairment groups? What would be the reaction from the other athletes? 

"So why should we allow only one International Federation if they have, shall we say, different philosophical principles, compared to all the other IFs that went through the process?

"It is like someone having an anti-doping policy that is not in line with the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) Code.

"At the moment the sport is suspended from the Paris 2024 programme. Of course there is a deadline by which if their rules are compliant with the code they will be back in, no doubt about it."

Meanwhile, Parsons is looking forward with genuine excitement to Wednesday's (August 26) release on Netflix of Rising Phoenix, a film about the Paralympic Movement which has involved nine top athletes telling their own stories.

"I think it can be huge," he says. "Because of the quality of the movie. I think it is a very accurate and a very good portrait of the Paralympic Movement.

"Whoever watches this movie will understand not only what the Paralympic Movement stands for, but they will have a different view or a different attitude to persons with disability.

"So if we have ten million people watching this movie we will have ten million being changed. 

"Because it is impossible that you watch this movie and stay the same. Impossible."

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