Health or Glory: Is this the choice for some athletes ahead of the Paralympic Games?

Last summer I reported on how a delayed Olympic and Paralympic Games affected some athletes.

There was however little doubt that the games would go ahead in 2021 and those who had been devastated by its postponement had that focus. 

But the start to this year has been just as difficult for many of us. Whilst elite athletes in 'lockdown 3' can train at facilities not open in 'lockdown 1', doubts have lingered about Tokyo's ability and desire to hold the games.

As recently as last month, reports suggested that they would be cancelled. This was furiously denied by those behind the world's biggest sporting event. 

In sport, when speculation is that rife, it is only a matter of time before it is confirmed- instead the opposite has happened. It now appears to be a question of 'how' and not 'if' the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held. Such is the determination to hold them, that the International Olympic Committee have started to release guides on how the games can be covid secure (more on that later).

For some it's a chance to add golden glory to an outstanding professional career. For others, it is an amateur event in its purest form. Day jobs, a desperation to secure sponsorship and training in the small hours, are all part of hunting down success and having the title 'Olympian' or 'Paralympian' next to your name. This is the journey for many in normal times but the world is anything but normal now. Instead athletes have something else to consider and think about when competing abroad- their health.

Richard Whitehead after finishing third in the Men's 100m T42 final the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships. Credit: PA Images

Para Athletes have a range of different disabilities, including those who would be considered vulnerable to infection and some may need additional physical or medical support. According to one of the sport's most decorated athletes, Richard Whitehead, the situation is very different for Olympic and Paralympic performers and it should be questioned whether the games should even be going ahead at all. In a world where it appears you can pick up Covid after a trip to a supermarket, how sensible or safe is it for some athletes with additional needs to be travelling across the world to compete in an event of that size and magnitude? 

Richard feels that the games should not be going ahead and that in itself is a bold statement to make. He points to the current global situation and that people are still dying from the virus. For him it comes back to the safety of Para Athletes and those who support them. Richard isn't just talking as an athlete who has trained rigorously to go, he's also talking as someone who manages others and therefore his duty of care extends to beyond his own welfare. Multi Paralympic swimming champion Ollie Hynd is one of those who he represents. Ollie has muscular dystrophy and is susceptible to chest infections. How safe and secure the games will be is a worry for Ollie - despite him not having conditions which would make him vulnerable in the way other athletes may have. There's a determination to go and compete but worries remain. He has already had to leave North Nottinghamshire to train in Manchester, away from family during this latest lockdown. Decisions like this won't be unusual for those looking to compete and naturally, Ollie and Richard don't want athletes to make the ultimate sacrifice just to be in Tokyo. Is it really that serious though? Are some athletes now having to decide whether it's about 'health or glory'? Well according to Richard, some are already having to make that choice.

Jordanne Whiley in the women's wheelchair quarter final match on day ten of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships. Credit: PA Images

There is however much positivity too. I spoke to the hugely successful Wheelchair Tennis player Jordanne Whiley who has been to the Paralympics before and Wheelchair Basketball player Siobhan Fitzpatrick, who would be going for the first time. They recognise that the situation is different for each athlete but their optimism about the games really does shine through. They are determined to be there and represent Team GB on the world's biggest stage and have confidence that the games can be delivered in a safe way. Siobhan made the point that if other elite sports are happening, why can't they still compete? And they certainly aren't alone in this way of thinking. Jordanne's teammates share her positivity and they are very much looking forward to going to the far east. After a difficult year for elite performers, there is the feeling that they very much need this end goal, this closure, to what is now a minimum of five years of hard preparation. 

England Central's Siobhan Fitzpatrick competes for the ball. Credit: PA Images

They will no doubt be encouraged by the IOC's guide that I mentioned before. These Playbooks are for athletes and staff and contain do's and don'ts. The first batch detailed how athletes must monitor their health 14 days before departure to Japan, be tested and receive a negative test with a certificate 72 hours before boarding and be prepared to be tested again on arrival. It went on to discourage social mixing but importantly state that vaccination is not mandatory to be able to compete. And for Para Athletes, the restriction of keeping at least two metres’ distance from others will be waived for those in need of additional support. More details are expected with further updates to be released in the coming months but it is easy to see why it feels like the games will go ahead. Whether there are crowds present is something that clearly will be decided closer to the time. Either way, the IOC and IPC seem committed.

Penny Briscoe OBE Credit: PA Images

That too is the message from the British Paralympic Association. With the situation as it is, the organisation is being very open with athletes and is in constant communication with team members. Athletes have been told to prepare and train as normal and that they can approach the BPA with any concerns or questions they may have. The Director of Sport, Penny Briscoe OBE told me that the perception of risk will be different for each athlete and that decisions would still have to be made as they and athletes get more information. People can make individual decisions and they will be respected- ultimately it will be down to whether an individual feels safe. Perhaps it is here where that notion of health vs glory is relevant.

So whilst some athletes have already made up their minds, others may still have difficult decisions to make.

Read more: