ParalympicsGB confirmed an incredible athletic performance in the most challenging of circumstances on Sunday as they finished in second place in the medal table at Tokyo 2020 behind China.
Great Britain won 124 medals overall, 41 gold, 38 silver and 45 bronze, but it barely begins to tell the story of a performance that must surely rank as the best in British Paralympic history.
While fewer medals were won this summer than in Rio five years ago, the total beat that of the home games of London 2012 by four. What’s more, the Rio success came without the participation of Russia who, competing as RPC in Tokyo, won 114 medals.
Even on a straightforward medals calculation, this was some show by Great Britain. But the team also won medals in a greater range of sports than any country had done before. A total of 56% of athletes making their debut at the Games won a medal and there were those who won after many years of trying, such as the table tennis player Sue Bailey who claimed a bronze at the seventh attempt. There were also all-time firsts, such as the totemic team sport gold won in wheelchair rugby.
Not many countries have chosen to give a press conference to commemorate their achievements at these Games, but Britain could perhaps be forgiven for doing so. The long-standing, inspirational chef de mission Penny Briscoe addressed the media and put the success, delivered in a pandemic which was anything but an abstract concern, in perspective.
“It’s been a rollercoaster cycle but here we are after a historic Games for the Paralympic movement and for us at GB,” she said. “It’s been complex and intensive and everyone involved should be hugely proud of their efforts. We spoke about embracing the opportunity and 226 athletes across 19 sports have done that. But it’s been tough.
“We had to manage two positive Covid cases and a number of close contacts, which was hugely challenging for all involved. We had a handful of false positives which took sensitive management and a number of key staff who were prevented from travelling. It’s testimony to the team that they have been able to adapt to the setbacks.
“Every athlete selected has had the opportunity to compete and every one is thankful for that opportunity. They have rewritten the history books. There is now 1,088 days to go until Paris and we are in a positive place.”
Mike Sharrock, the chief executive of the British Paralympic Association, paid tribute to the team, but also the system. During the course of the past two weeks, in fact directly after George Peasgood finished third in the road cycling men’s C4 time trial, Great Britain recorded its 1,000th Olympic and Paralympic medal since the introduction of National Lottery funding. Sharrock said everyone involved in British Paralympic sport deserved continued credit for this ongoing success, despite increasing global competition.
“Paralympic sport in the UK is a huge success story and is still going from strength to strength,” he said. “It is absolutely about elite sport and the performances keep getting better and better. Our athletes are absolutely at the top of their game. We just saw 12 days of extraordinary sport, we’re in a really strong place, and in that we need to pay tribute to the system.
“We have an incredibly efficient, high-performance system in the UK which we are part of. We talk a lot about money but it’s about much more than that, we have a system built to squeeze every drop out of performance.”
From that performance comes success and from that success comes visibility, for athletes specifically but also for people with disabilities more broadly. “We see the impact that Paralympic performance has on continuing to change attitudes towards disability,” Sharrock said. “And we see that as a very important part of what we do. We are in a stronger position today than we ever have been.”