We’re all still in quarantine over here in Tokyo, which means we can go between our hotel and the venues and that’s it. So one of my highlights this week was when the organisers laid on a boat, a Covid-secure boat, to show us the sights.
It was great to get out and about and it happened that our journey took us past the Paralympic village. When we were coming close I got on the phone and called up Gaz Choudhry, who came out with some of the wheelchair basketball team and gave us a wave. We did a bit of filming and it was good fun, it was just one of those moments when you have a connection with someone and that’s been a bit harder to find at these Games.
I’ve known Gaz since he was 11 and I was playing for the London Titans. He was that kid who’d come up to you and beg you to play one on one with him, to give him some time because he wanted to get better. I’d be knackered after a match, but we’d just scrimmage and scrimmage together. Now he’s not only a leading player in the ParalympicsGB wheelchair basketball team, but their coach too after Haj Bhania contracted Covid and is back in the UK quarantining.
Gaz has always been the type who wanted all the responsibility, and now he’s got it. GB got off to a good start against Algeria but were beaten by Germany on Friday and need to go again to make sure of a top-four spot in their group, which would take them to the quarter-finals. It’s going to be exhausting for Gaz mentally, and physically too, but it’s a massive opportunity.
Making perfection from imperfection, what I believe they call wabi-sabi over here, was one of the themes of the opening ceremony of the Games this week, which I loved. It’s funny because when I was a player, opening ceremonies could feel like a little bit of a burden. You’d be feeling like: “I’m here to do a job, I’m here to try and win medals” and going to an opening ceremony you’re just in a long queue waiting to go on. It can be hours until your country is called and then you go out and you sit about for a couple of hours and get dehydrated. For me, it was kind of a chore.
This year, though, it was different. I was presenting the coverage for Channel 4 which was a privilege in itself; me, a comprehensive school kid from east London. But I also enjoyed watching the whole ceremony, all the effort the hosts had put into it and being able to get a sense of what Tokyo’s vision was for the Games. The ceremony built up to a piece of music and theatre and dance called The Little One-Winged Plane. In it the plane – played by a young girl who uses a wheelchair – learned from others around her to be able to fly on her own terms, in her own way. I think that kind of idea, about finding your own individual strength, about being confident in who you are, is a good progression of the Paralympic message.
I was also interested to hear what the IPC were saying about WeThe15, an initiative to try and use para-sport to help bring about social change. For me, it’s about time. It’s about time that the IPC and disability sport started reaching out and trying to inspire change. Not just change in western countries either, but globally. I’ve travelled around the world and seen how hard it is in developing countries. In Africa, I think it’s as high as 70% of all disabled kids don’t get access to decent education. That’s nuts.
No access to education leads to poverty, that means you’re more likely to be abused, your mortality rate is going to be much higher. It’s just really heartbreaking to see how other disabled people are struggling. So the Paralympics is so, so important: that we use the profile, the platform that we have to make other disabled people’s lives better. We have that power. We’ve got massive power.
One other highlight of the week was watching Lee Pearson win his 12th gold medal at a Paralympic Games. I think that puts him third on the all-time list of most successful British Paralympians and to have that level of consistency is incredible. Lee is funny, he’s a character and he taught me how to ride once. He’s such a powerful, forthright, confident person. When you think what he’s gone through with his disability and how he was treated when he was younger, he must just sometimes pinch himself and think: “Oh my days, have I really managed to achieve this?”
I think Lee is as good as an example as any of where para-sport is right now, the progression these Games are trying to showcase. If you think about his story and the level of his disability, he is like that little plane. He found his wings, he learned to fly. Even with a broken wing you can still find a way; you improvise and you do it in your own way. Finding perfection out of imperfection.