Today in a nutshell: the Paralympics lifted off with a fun airport-themed opening ceremony that featured the obligatory speeches, the flag of Afghanistan, and a 13-year-old girl playing a little one-winged plane that wanted to learn to fly.

Tomorrow’s key moments: the first of the 539 gold medals available at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will be won in the track cycling, swimming and wheelchair fencing.

Other planes speak to Yui Wago, the 13-year-old girl playing the part of the little one-winged plane in her wheelchair.
Other planes speak to Yui Wago, the 13-year-old girl playing the part of the little one-winged plane in her wheelchair. Photograph: Szilárd Koszticsák/EPA

Did you enjoy it? On the whole I thought it was mostly a light-hearted and fun ceremony to open up the Paralympics. Those of us of a certain vintage will have appreciated the bit when the DJ went completely late-80s/early 90s acid house on us all during the athlete’s parade. And they definitely doubled-down on attention to detail on the airport theme, with some of the dancers even wearing hats with little rotating propellers on them.

One of the propellor-headed performers at the opening ceremony.
One of the propeller-headed performers at the opening ceremony. Photograph: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

There were sombre moments though. Reflections on the year that has just gone, and the loss of life from Covid-19 that led to the Games being delayed. And there was also the recognition that the Afghanistan Paralympics team are not in Tokyo – but their flag was carried in a symbolic gesture.

A Paralympic volunteer carries the national flag of Afghanistan during the opening ceremonies.
A Paralympic volunteer carries the national flag of Afghanistan during the opening ceremonies. Photograph: Joel Marklund for OIS/AP

New Zealand were also curiously only represented by their national flag – their athletes all decided to stay away from the stadium. Malaysia probably took the costume award for their modern twist on their traditional national dress, although there were strong efforts from Mexico and South Africa too.

Members of team Malaysia walk in the parade of athletes.
Members of team Malaysia walk in the parade of athletes. Photograph: Alex Pantling/Getty Images

The International Paralympics Committee (IPC) president, Andrew Parsons, said “I cannot believe we are finally here. Many doubted this day would happen. Many thought it was impossible. But thanks to the work of many people, the most transformative sporting event on earth is about to begin.”

International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons talks during the opening ceremony.
International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons talks during the opening ceremony. Photograph: Christopher Jue/Getty Images for International Paralympic Committee

Covid can’t be kept completely at bay, however. Organisers on Tuesday announced the first positive test for an athlete living in the Paralympic Village. They gave no name or details and said the athlete was now in isolation.

Meanwhile, the IPC has faced some criticism in the UK, with suggestions that it offers limited opportunities to athletes with learning disabilities. The Mencap charity says athletes with such a disability can only compete for 4% of the gold medals available at the Games.

The Mencap chief executive, Edel Harris, said: “The Paralympics is about inclusion and it’s important that everyone is included and not left out. I feel that this is discrimination. Why is it – when we are constantly talking about the need for greater inclusion – that people with a learning disability are still excluded from so much at the Paralympics?”

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The briefing’s picture of the day

Mexico’s outfits for the opening ceremony were among the best on show in Tokyo.
Mexico’s outfits for the opening ceremony were among the best on show in Tokyo. Photograph: Lisi Niesner/Reuters

Our picture desk have pulled together a gallery of the best images from the opening ceremony.

🇬🇧🇬🇧🇬🇧 ParalympicsGB update

I’m in London and she’s in Tokyo but last week I managed to have a Zoom call with British Paralympian Stef Reid about her buildup to the games. She’s one of the ambassadors for a Virgin Media campaign using the hashtag #WeAreHere which is aiming to show public support for ParalympicsGB, as they can’t have friends, family and crowds with them in Tokyo. Reid wasn’t going to the opening ceremony today as she’s competing at the weekend and “you’re standing for almost seven hours”.

But she said that despite her fears that the atmosphere at the Games might be rather “sterile”, organisers have gone to great lengths to make the athletes feel at home. “The volunteers that we do see are finding different ways to make us feel supported,” she said. “All around the track where we train we have these personalised messages of good luck and notes from school kids, and they’re cheering as the competitors come in, and that has actually felt really welcoming and really fun.”

Stef Reid in action competing in London in 2019 before Covid intervened.
Stef Reid competing in London in 2019 before Covid-19 caused the Tokyo Games to be delayed. Photograph: Paul Harding/PA Archive/PA Images

Reid offered a positive message about what this year’s Paralympics could achieve. “I think it’s been a really hard year for everybody, not just athletes. Everybody has been going through their own struggles with Covid. I hope these games are a source of joy. And just a reminder that you can still do great things, even in hard times, even if you have to do them a little bit differently. We can still do them.”

Great Britain flag bearers Ellie Simmonds and John Stubbs during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
Great Britain flag bearers Ellie Simmonds and John Stubbs during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Photograph: Bob Martin for OIS/PA

🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺 Australia update

In the buildup to the Games, Guardian Australia made half a dozen visits to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra to spend time with some of the athletes, coaches and staff collectively going for gold in Tokyo. Kieran Pender brings us fantastic profiles of Emily Tapp (triathlete), Jaryd Clifford (runner), Philo Saunders (coach), Yuriy Vdovychenko (swimming coach), Iryna Dvoskina (athletics coach) and Peta Maloney (sports scientist).

🇯🇵🇯🇵🇯🇵 The hosts and beyond

Uganda’s Husnah Kukundakwe is the youngest athlete at these Games. She’ll be in the SB8 women’s breaststroke on Thursday, and she’s just 14. At a press event leading up to the opening ceremony, she said: “Since it’s the Paralympics and everybody else is disabled, I feel really comfortable with myself. In Uganda, there are very few people who have disabilities who want to come out and be themselves. I can also show other young people, who want to participate in Para sports, that they should go forward and believe in themselves. There was a lot of people who kept telling me that you can’t reach this, but you can reach it.”

Husnah Kukundakwe of Uganda.
Husnah Kukundakwe of Uganda. Photograph: Joe Toth for OIS/AP

Japan are sending their largest ever Paralympic delegation to these Games, with 255 athletes taking part. It’s nearly double the number they sent to London or Rio. But they’ve got some work to do in terms of the medal table. Japan returned from the 2016 summer Paralympics having won no golds, for the first time ever as a nation.

🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸 Team USA update

James Simpson II has interviewed Dana Mathewson for us. She’s the highest ranked American wheelchair tennis player in the world. “I love that tennis allows me to push myself and see what I’m capable of doing,” Mathewson said. “Because it’s a singular sport, when you have a big win, you know that’s because of the hours you put in on your own, and that feeling of accomplishment is unlike anything I have ever felt.”

Dana Mathewson poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 shoot.
Dana Mathewson poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 shoot. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images

Did you know?

In 1992 Hungarian fencer Pál Szekeres became the first Olympic medallist to also win a medal at the Paralympics. He won a bronze medal in the team foil event at the 1988 Seoul Games, then went on to compete in wheelchair fencing after suffering an accident in 1991. He took part in six Paralympic Games, winning three golds.

Fireworks going off during the Paralympics opening ceremony.
Fireworks going off during the Paralympics opening ceremony. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

Key events for Wednesday 25 August

All events are listed here in local Tokyo time. Add an hour for Sydney, subtract eight hours for Manchester, 13 hours for New York and 16 hours for San Francisco. It will be second nature by the end of the week.

🌟If you only watch one thing: 10am-3.25pm Track cycling – the very first gold medal of the Games should be won at around 1.45pm Tokyo time on Wednesday after the final of the women’s C1-3 3,000m individual pursuit. Three more track cycling finals follow, including the C5 3,000m individual pursuit where Britain’s most successful female Paralympian, 43-year-old Sarah Storey, will be hoping to add to her tally of 14 Paralympic gold medals 🥇

  • 9am-11.28am and 5pm-8.18pm Swimming – there is a packed programme on the opening day of competition in the pool. Unlike at the Olympics, it is the more usual arrangement of heats in the morning, starting at 1am, followed by finals in the evening. There are 16 gold medals on offer on Wednesday 🥇

  • 9am Equestrian – the 1st horse inspection for the dressage takes place.

  • 9am-8.30pm Wheelchair basketball – there are preliminary group games all day, mostly for the women. The US women face the Netherlands at 11.15am, Great Britain’s women play Canada at 2.45pm and Australia face Japan at 5pm.

  • 9am-8.30pm Goalball – this is one of the few Paralympic sports that has no equivalent for athletes without a disability. Teams of three who are all visually impaired are aiming to score goals with a ball that has bells in it to allow the athletes to track where it is. The sport started as a rehabilitation treatment for second world war veterans who had been blinded, and is now played in more than 80 countries. It can be fast and furious, with the ball thrown at up to 60kph. There are men’s and women’s preliminary group games throughout the day.

  • 11.30am-8pm Wheelchair rugby – mixed teams, and the US open the tournament with their pool game against New Zealand. Reigning champions Australia follow against Denmark at 2pm, then at 5.30pm there’s a re-match of Great Britain v Canada, which turned out to be a close 50-49 victory for the Canadians in Rio. The hosts finish the day’s matches against France.

  • 4.30pm-7pm Wheelchair fencing – the competition starts at 9am, but the medal matches get going at 4.30pm, with the men’s and women’s sabre individual in both category A and category B decided by the end of the day 🥇

Get in touch

I’ve had a couple of people contact me about Alia Issa, who was one of the refugee team flag-bearers today. They were questioning the suggestion that her disability had been caused by smallpox – given that she is so young that it must have been eradicated by the time she was born. I’ve looked into it and I’ve got no answer I’m afraid – that’s what all her official biographies say.

I do have an answer for something else though: what all the codes like S5 and T11 and C4-5 mean. There’s a handy guide here on the Paralympics website. There’s also a 41-page PDF of official briefing notes. I’ve read that so that you don’t have to, and will endeavour to explain as we go along.

Don’t forget you can always get in touch with me at martin.belam@theguardian.com, and I’ll see you tomorrow, when we’ll have some sport headlines to talk about. Now I just have to find out where I can get one of these incredible South African shirts that look like someone has tried to fingerprint a zebra.

Athletes from South Africa during the opening ceremony.
Athletes from South Africa during the opening ceremony. Photograph: Emilio Morenatti/AP

The last word

The stigma attached to disability changes when you watch the sport. These games will change your attitude toward disability. If you look around Japan, it’s very rare you see persons with disabilities on the street. We’ve got to go from protecting people to empowering people and creating opportunities for people to flourish in society. – Craig Spence, a spokesperson for the International Paralympic Committee

Contributor

Martin Belam

The GuardianTramp

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