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Everything You Need to Know About the Tokyo Paralympic Games

You'll want to binge this year's first-ever prime time coverage after learning more about these incredible athletes and competitions

A staff member walks past the Tokyo Paralympic banner at the Olympic Stadium

PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

A staff member walks past Paralympic banners put in place ahead of the event at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

En español | The Tokyo Summer Olympics came to a close on Aug. 8, but if you're in the market for even more international camaraderie and world-class athletic competition, you're in luck: The Tokyo Paralympic Games begin on Aug. 24, welcoming athletes with disabilities from around the globe. From eligibility rules and history to where and how you can catch your favorite events, here's everything you need to know about this year's Games.

What are the Paralympics?

The precursors to the modern Paralympics were created by Ludwig Guttmann, a German Jewish neurologist who fled to England before the start of World War II. In 1948, he founded the Stoke Mandeville Games, a sporting event for British veterans with spinal cord injuries that coincided with the 1948 London Summer Olympics. By 1952, Dutch veterans joined the event, marking the first international competition. And the Paralympics as we currently know them kicked off in Rome in 1960, six days after the end of the Olympics. Today, the Paralympic Games — which include Summer and Winter iterations — rank as the second-biggest sporting event in the world, and this year's Games will welcome nearly 4,400 athletes from about 170 nations.

When and where will the Paralympics be held?

Since the 1988 Seoul Games, the Olympics and Paralympics have shared a host city and sporting venues. This marks the second time Tokyo will host the Paralympics — following a turn in 1964 — with 539 events across 22 sports scheduled between Aug. 24 and Sept. 5. Much like the Olympics before them, the Paralympics will be using the 2020 branding and logos, despite being postponed for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who is eligible to participate in the Paralympics?

Athletes must fall into one of 10 impairment types: impaired muscle power (which can result from a condition such as spina bifida or muscular dystrophy), impaired passive range of movement, limb deficiency (which can result from congenital conditions or amputation), leg length difference, short stature, hypertonia (an increase in muscle tension caused by damage to the central nervous system), ataxia (uncoordinated movement caused by damage to the central nervous system), athetosis (continual slow involuntary movements), vision impairment and intellectual impairment. Players must then go through a process called “athlete evaluation,” during which they are grouped by their levels of impairment to ensure fairness; the International Paralympic Committee compares the process to grouping athletes by age, gender or weight.


How can I watch the Paralympics?

This year, it will be easier than ever before to watch coverage of the Paralympics, including the first-ever prime-time broadcasts on NBC. Check your local TV listings to find the more than 200 hours of live and tape-delayed events, which will be played across various NBC Universal networks, including NBC, NBC Sports Network and the Olympic Channel. If you just can't get enough, you can find 1,000 additional hours of coverage on NBC Universal's digital and streaming platforms, including NBCOlympics.com, the NBC Sports app (which you can download to your smartphone or smart TV) and Peacock (which is like NBC's answer to Hulu or Netflix and is available for $4.99 a month).

What else can I watch if I'm still in the Paralympic spirit?

Last year, Netflix released a documentary called Rising Phoenix, which follows the inspiring stories of nine Paralympians, including French long jumper and sprinter Jean-Baptiste Alaize. Born in Burundi, Alaize was attacked with a machete at the age of 3, just before the outbreak of the country's civil war, and one of his legs had to be amputated. He lived in an orphanage until a French family adopted him, and now he competes with a carbon prosthesis. In June, the film won two Sports Emmys, including outstanding long sports documentary.

Are there any new sports joining the Games this year?

Badminton and tae kwon do are making their Paralympics debut, replacing sailing and seven-a-side football (soccer). Ninety athletes from 28 nations will compete in 14 badminton events, while 72 competitors will square off across six tae kwon do events.

How about new countries?

Yep! Bhutan and Guyana are both sending athletes for the first time.


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United States player Marybai Huking playing in the Japan Para Goalball Championship

Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

Marybai Huking (right) of the United States competes in the Japan Para Goalball Championship at Chiba Port Arena on Feb. 2, 2019 in Chiba, Japan.

Do all Paralympics sports have Olympic counterparts?

No, there are two that are unique to the Paralympics: boccia and goalball. Originally designed for people with severe cerebral palsy, boccia is similar to boccie and is played by people who use wheelchairs and have an impairment that impacts their motor skills. Goalball, on the other hand, is a team sport for visually impaired athletes that involves trying to throw a ball embedded with bells into the opposing team's goal. Players are blindfolded so that partially sighted and fully blind players can compete on a level playing field.

Aside from the blindfolds in goalball, are there any other interesting modifications or rules I should know about before tuning in?

If you watch certain sports with visually impaired athletes, you'll immediately notice that Paralympians are paired with sighted guides (or “pilots” in the case of para-cycling). Since the 2012 Games in London, these guides have also been eligible for medals, because they're such an integral part of the training. Swimming, meanwhile, requires another unique adaptation for visually impaired athletes: Someone known as a “tapper” uses a long pole to alert the swimmer when they need to turn at the end of the pool! And if you tune in to certain events and notice that the crowd is deadly quiet, don't assume the spectators are being rude or unsupportive. For sports that require the players to rely on sound, such as goalball and five-a-side football, spectators must remain silent.


Alicia Dana competes in the time trial during the 2021 US Paralympic Trials

David Berding/Getty Images

Alicia Dana competes in the time trial during the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Trials at Gold Medal Park on June 19, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Are there any Paralympians over 50 to root for?

Yes, many! Among the 240-member Team USA, the incredibly impressive over-50 Paralympians include archers Lia Coryell (56) and Andre Shelby (52); cyclists Alicia Dana (52), Freddie De Los Santos (51), Aaron Keith (50), Monica Sereda (54), Jill Walsh (58) and Joe Berenyi (52); rower Russell Gernaat (55); table tennis player Michael Godfrey (57); shot put thrower Scot Severn (53); and wheelchair fencer Terry Hayes (63). On the other end of the spectrum, Team USA has nine athletes under the age of 18, including two 16-year-olds: swimmer Keegan Knott and track athlete Ezra Frech.

Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.