From Rescues To Romance: Top Moments At Tokyo Paralympics

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A secret evacuation from Kabul, a new British record and a post-race proposal — there was no shortage of memorable moments at Tokyo’s Paralympics, held after a year-long pandemic postponement.

As the Games draw to a close Sunday, AFP recaps some of the stories that will be remembered:

Afghan team escapes Kabul

Athletes from Afghanistan carry their national flag during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on September 5, 2021.
Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP

Afghanistan’s swift fall to the Taliban last month left the country’s two Paralympic athletes trapped, with no way to leave Kabul and their dreams of competing in Tokyo seemingly over.

At the opening ceremony, the Afghan flag was carried by a Japanese volunteer — but four days into the Games, officials announced that Zakia Khudadadi and Hossain Rasouli had made it to Japan.

Details of their evacuation via Paris had been kept secret, in what International Paralympic Committee spokesman Craig Spence described as a “major global event.

“Both athletes are here in Tokyo to fulfil their dreams, sending out a very strong message of hope to many others around the world,” Spence said.

Khudadadi, 22, fought in the Paralympics’ first-ever taekwondo bout, while Rasouli, 26, took part in a long jump event, having missed the 100m sprint he had trained for.

China’s Haiyan Gu (R) competes against Italy’s Beatrice Maria Vio during the wheelchair fencing gold medal match of the women’s foil team between China and Italy during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Makuhari Messe Hall in Chiba, Japan, on August 29, 2021.
Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP

Fencing icon Beatrice “Bebe” Vio, one of the world’s best-known Paralympians, defended her Rio gold in scintillating form.

The 24-year-old, who had both forearms and legs amputated when she contracted meningitis aged 11, beat China’s Zhou Jingjing 15-9 to win Category B in the women’s individual foil.

The Italian sensation is known for her lightning speed and banshee cries on the piste, and was one of nine Paralympians featured in the acclaimed documentary “Rising Phoenix”.

And her passion extends beyond the arena: she also works as a motivational speaker, author, actor, TV host and disability campaigner.

It was Vio’s second gold at her second Games after she stunned firm favourite Zhou to win at Rio 2016 aged just 19.

Team GB’s wheelchair rugby triumph

Britain’s Stuart Robinson (L), a veteran who was wounded in Afghanistan, passes the ball in the wheelchair rugby gold medal match between Britain and the US during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo on August 29, 2021. Behrouz MEHRI / AFP

A shock gold medal for Britain’s wheelchair rugby players was the first time a European team has triumphed at the Paralympics in the high-impact sport once known as “murderball”.

They upset the odds by beating the heavily favoured US team 54-49 in the final, while Japan took bronze.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be coming away with a Paralympic gold medal,” said Britain’s Stuart Robinson.

“For the past four or five years we’ve been building towards something special.”

Jim Roberts, who scored 24 tries in the final to lead his side to victory, was asked how he would celebrate. “I just hope someone’s got some beer somewhere,” he told the UK’s Channel 4 television.

Gold medallist Britain’s Sarah Storey celebrates after winning the women’s cycling road individual C5 time trial during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Fuji International Speedway in Oyama on August 31, 2021. CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP

In another coup for Team GB, cycling legend Sarah Storey became Britain’s most successful Paralympian with her 17th gold medal, 29 years after her first.

The indomitable 43-year-old’s golden hat-trick in Tokyo dethroned swimmer Mike Kenny, who won 16 golds between 1976 to 1988.

After her women’s C4-5 road race victory in treacherous cool, wet and foggy conditions, Storey said she felt “a bit overwhelmed”.

“I feel like it is happening to someone else… but crossing the line first felt so good,” she said.

“In that last descent I didn’t touch my brakes, I just went for it.”

Paralympic Proposal

Guide runner, Manuel Antonio Vaz da Veiga proposing to Keula Semedo.

In the soggy Olympic Stadium on Thursday, Cape Verde’s Keula Nidreia Pereira Semedo failed to qualify for the women’s T11 200m semifinals — but there was a surprise consolation.

After the race, her guide runner Manuel Antonio Vaz da Veiga got down on one knee and proposed.

Video of the magic moment showed both athletes beaming as Semedo accepted.

Vaz de Veiga revealed afterwards that he’d been planning the proposal since his bride-to-be was selected for the Cape Verde squad in July.

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