2020 Paralympics Open in Tokyo With Record Number of Athletes — And Women

by Lisa Costantini

Melissa Stockwell and Chuck Aoki carry the flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 24, 2021 in Tokyo.


TOKYO — Since the close of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 16 days ago, the Olympic Stadium has been waiting for its time to shine — again — similar to what Paralympic athletes around the world have been doing for the past year. 

After a year’s postponement, the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 officially kicked off with Tuesday night’s Opening Ceremony under a sky full of fireworks and promise.

The concept behind the show was dubbed “We Have Wings” as a way to raise awareness of the efforts of the Paralympians who are trying to spread their wings “no matter which way the wind blows.”

And there are no bigger wings than that of an airplane. So with the stage set to resemble an airport lounge, a cast of local Japanese special performers counted down to the start of the show.

The Tokyo Organizing Committee put out a call for public participation in the two Paralympic ceremonies, seeking citizens who have recovered from injury as a way to shine light and raise awareness on various impairments. More than 5,000 applied with 75 people selected for the Opening and 89 for the Closing. 

As the parade of athletes entered the stadium, the stage was made to look like an airport lounge with the theme being the “Para Airport.” 

Fireworks at the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 24, 2021 in Tokyo.


The Refugee Paralympic Team were first in the parade of nations, followed by Iceland, which is first in the Japanese alphabet order. The host country always gets the honor of bringing up the rear, but this was the first time the next host countries were also moved to the back. Entering just before their Japanese hosts — who had the largest delegation with 254 athletes — were Team USA and France in recognition of the upcoming LA 2028 and Paris 2024 Games.

Around half of Team USA’s 240-person delegation was in attendance for the kickoff party. In the past, select athletes have opted to sit out the ceremony to preserve energy for their competition the following day. However, this year, the COVID-19 restrictions also prevented athletes from entering the country if they were not due to compete until later in the Games.  

“After an unparalleled year, our incredible roster of 234 athletes and six guides are ready to show the world the athleticism and determination of Team USA on the Tokyo stage,” said Julie Dussliere, United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee chief of Paralympic sport. “We can’t wait to cheer them on as they live out their dreams in front of the nation and the globe.”



Leading the way for Team USA were American flag bearers, Chuck Aoki, a 2016 silver medalist in wheelchair rugby and Melissa Stockwell, a 2016 bronze medalist in paratriathlon.

The pair were chosen by a vote of fellow Team USA athletes and marks the first time two athletes could be selected for each country, similar to what was done in the Olympic Games as a way to ensure gender balance.

“Being selected flag bearer is such a stunning honor that I never expected,” said Aoki, whose mom was shown on video from Trenton, NJ sending well wishes during the ceremony.

“As a veteran, carrying the American flag and representing my sport (triathlon), my country, my Paralympic family and my team — that is an incredible honor,” said Stockwell, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army 1st Cavalry Division.
“The Paralympics are a showcase of what we can overcome with the power of the human body and the human spirit, and I’m just so proud of where my story has brought me.”

The U.S. Paralympic Team walk during the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 24, 2021 in Tokyo.


According to the organizers, around 183 countries in addition to the Refugee Paralympic Team walked in the ceremony. Tokyo 2020 will mark the largest number of Paralympic athletes to ever compete at a Games — with more women than ever before: 1,853 in total.

“Although we are still some way short of gender parity, we are heading in the right direction with the number of women competing at the Paralympics almost doubling since the Sydney 2000 Paralympics,” said IPC President Andrew Parsons.

Afghanistan was also set to make history with their first female athlete to take part in the Games. However, after the Taliban seized control of their country last week, the two athletes were unable to make it to Tokyo. But despite their absence from the Games, the Afghani flag was included in the ceremony as a sign of solidarity. 

Parsons said during a press conference that he hopes the flag will be a message of peace to the rest of the world.

Taking the podium was the President of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Seiko Hashimoto who welcomed the world.

Parsons followed with a speech about the “WeThe15” campaign, a global rights movement that was launched by a coalition of organizations to end discrimination against persons with disabilities. The campaign film played following Parsons’ speech, showing that people with disabilities make up 15 percent of the world’s population. 

While no spectators were allowed for the Opening Ceremony, His Majesty the Emperor of Japan, Naruhito, was in attendance along with members of the world’s press.

The show was an upbeat presentation as lively and entertaining as a Cirque du Soleil performance. There were acrobats, musical performances and impressive feats. 

Much of the story centered on a one-winged plane that dreams of flying through the skies. The young girl that plays the main character, who moves around the stage in a wheelchair, was among the thousands of residents who auditioned for the show and had no prior experience.

The little one-winged plane eventually makes her way down the runway and takes flight, set to the tune of “Spread Your Wings and Fly.”

The conclusion of the three-hour show, as always, ended with the lighting of the cauldron. The design of the Paralympic torch was inspired by the sakura, Japan’s traditional cherry blossom, and was a noticeable theme throughout the Opening Ceremony. 

A Japanese Paralympian and two para-athletes were chosen to light the cauldron simultaneously, signifying the start of the Tokyo 2020 Games. This is the first time a Paralympic cauldron is being fueled by hydrogen, in an effort to be carbon neutral.

The competition begins the following day, with the Closing Ceremony taking place on Sunday, Sept. 6. A total of 4,403 athletes are set to compete over the course of the 12 days. Included in the 22 Paralympic sports are badminton and taekwondo, which will make their debut in Tokyo.

Something else new to Tokyo will be the unprecedented amount of hours NBCUniversal will be broadcasting of the Paralympic Games. Increasing from the 70 hours shown during Rio 2016, the network will feature an astonishing 1,200 total hours of programming across all of its platforms. On top of that, they will be showing the events during primetime broadcasts, a first-ever, as well as 200 hours of TV coverage among NBC, NBCSN, and the Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA, and over 1,000 hours of live streaming across 19 sports on NBC’s digital platforms. 

Lisa Costantini is a freelance writer based in Orlando. She has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications, and has contributed to since 2011.