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Can you guess which one Mehrzad is?

At nearly 2.5 meters tall, there are very, very few people in the world taller than Mr Morteza “Mehrzad” Mehrzadselakjani of Iran. And as it turned out, this giant of a man led his Iranian volleyball team to Paralympic gold in Rio last month. In the finals against Bosnia Herzegovina, Iran outspiked their opponents 59-42, and Mehrzad, as he is popularly known , slammed home 26 of those spikes.

That is to be expected in the sport of Paralympic volleyball, where athletes are all sitting. These paralympic athletes play by normal volleyball rules, except that the net is only 1.15 meters high. Mehrzad, even when he is sitting, has a reach of over 6 meters. So it’s no wonder that this Persian paralympian can dominate a match.

One would think that being so tall would be a wonderful advantage. But in fact, Mehrzad fractured his pelvis in a bicycle accident when he was 16, which somehow stunted the growth of his right leg, which is now about 15 centimeters shorter than the left. Because of that, and the fact that he suffers from a rare condition known as acromegaly that results in abnormal growth, he has not had an easy life.

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Mehrzad spiking his team to victory in the Rio Paralympics sitting volleyball finals.

Relegated to a wheelchair and crutches due to his legs, and insecure due to his appearance, Mehrzad suffered from depression. But then one day, five years ago, a coach saw Mehrzad on television and believed that he could be a great paralympic athlete. “I was alone, I was depressed,” he told Iranian TV about his life growing up. “But my life has changed from playing sitting volleyball and being a Paralympian.”

See Mehrzad in action in the video below.

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As Japan gears up for the 2020 Olympics, they take great comfort from the success of their athletes at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Japan finished sixth in the medals table with 41 total – the country’s best showing ever. But as the country prepares for the 2020 Paralympics, they were stunned that Japan could not garner a single gold medal at the Rio Paralympics, finishing 64th out of 76 in the total medal count.

It made me wonder, what are the factors that contribute to success at the Paralympics, at least in terms of medal haul. A quick analysis indicates that a robust economy, established leadership, focused funding, and strong societal commitment to fair and reasonable accessibility for the disabled.

Robust Economy: China, Great Britain, the US, and Australia were in the top five in the Rio Paralympics, which suggests that a success factor in the Paralympics is a strong economy. However, Japan as a case in point indicates that a strong economy is not the only factor.

Established Leadership: The Ukraine is not an economy nearly as strong or stable as the others in the top five. Their success, according to this BBC report, is because Ukraine has strong leadership, in this case, a person who designed and powerfully drove a national program that focused on the development of young people with disabilities.

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2016 Rio Paralympic medal table
Ukraine were 31 places below Team USA in the Olympics medal table, but one place above them at the Rio Paralympics. They are reaping the rewards of foundations set by Valeriy Sushkevych, founder and president of the Paralympic Committee of Ukraine, who helped develop a physical education and sport programme for young people with disabilities.

Focused Funding: Strong leadership needs access to funding. When BBC compared the success of China and the US in paralympic competition, they noted that China’s paralympic development programs have access to significant funds, while the US paralympics train under constant financial constraints. The USOC runs its funding on a corporate sponsorship model, and does not receive government funds. The Chinese model is entirely government supported. The way the funds are divvied up between athletes for the Olympics and the Paralympics differs greatly as well.

With money raised through sponsorship deals with major brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Visa, USOC hands out about $50m (£39m) a year to US athletes across different sports, with the Rio Paralympics team receiving about $4m (£3m). Meanwhile, the Chinese government is aiming to develop a £647bn sports industry by 2025 and in recent years has increased its investment in sport, including football, Olympics and Paralympics. As of 2016, China has trained more than 42,100 fitness instructors for the disabled and has built 225 provincial and 34 national specialised sports training centres. The China Disability Sports Training Centre in Beijing, opened in 2007, also provides state-of-the-art facilities for disabled athletes.

Strong Societal Commitment: Also with strong leadership may come a strong, broad-based commitment, not just by governments or organizations devoted to the development of sports and athletes, but also by society. When laws are enacted to grow awareness of and increase access for the disabled, then society becomes more open and supportive.

One can conclude that hosting the Paralympics acts like an accelerant for commitment to the disabled. Before Brazil, the previous four nations to host the Paralympics were Great Britain, China, Greece and Australia. Except for Greece, Great Britain, China and Australia were in the top five of the Rio Paralympics medals table.

The investment in Paralympic success was abundant in 2012 for TeamGB. The same was true for China in 2008. The assumption is that Japanese authorities will aim not only for success for Team Nippon in the Olympics but also the Paralympics. Clearly, hosting the Olympics and Paralympics is tremendous incentive to make significant investments. And with the country’s pride on the line, the investment will flow, perceptions will shift, rules and laws may change, and Japan, by 2020, may become one of the most inclusive nations in the world. My guess is that Japan will do very well in the Tokyo Paralympics as well.

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Tatyana McFadden in Rio

She was born in cash-strapped Russia just before the fall of the Soviet Union with spina bifida, a situation that in Tatyana McFadden’s case left her paralyzed from the waist down in a broken-down institution in Leningrad known as “Orphanage 9.” Without funds for a wheelchair, Tatyana got around walking on her hands.

As fate would have it, her eyes locked with a visitor from America, Deborah McFadden, who in 1995 was visiting in her capacity as Commissioner of Disabilities for the US Health Department. Deborah and her partner decided to adopt Tatyana and brought her to Baltimore, Maryland, where Tatyana got the medical care and the family support she was not fated to receive in her home country.

And thanks to the opportunities and clearly her indomitable drive, Tatyana would go on to become one of the most successful athletes in the world. Over a span of four Paralympics since 2004 in Athens, Tatyana has garnered 16 medals for TeamUSA, including 7 golds, in wheelchair racing. Not only that, she has shown incredible range, winning over the entire spectrum of track distance. At the Rio Paralympics, she took silver in the 100 meter sprint and silver in the 42.2 kilometer marathon, as well as gold medals in between in the 400 meters, 800 meters, 1500 meters and 5000 meters.

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Tatyana with her biological mother_BBC

 

 

Tatyana has enormous capacity not only to train and triumph, but to forgive. She set her sites on returning to her homeland and competing at the Winter Paralympics in Sochi in a completely different sport – Nordic skiing. Part of her motivation to learn a new sport was to see her biological mother, Nina Pilevikova. In front of her adopted and biological mothers, Tatyana incredibly took silver in 1K sprint for those who skied while sitting. Her capacity for triumph was matched by her capacity to empathize, as she related to the BBC in Sochi.

“It is of course hard as a mother. You carry a child for nine months, but if you think about it, knowing you can’t take care of your child, what do you do? Do you selfishly keep it, knowing you can’t have the medical….I needed a lot of medical treatment. And I needed attention quickly. That’s the toughest decision she has to make.”

Said her biological mother, “I am very proud of Tatyana. I am very happy to be here with all our family. I think people look at Tatyana and they have hope.”

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In Sochi

Tatyana, like many Paralympians, do not aim to be inspirations. In fact, some often feel patronized by the label. Tatyana had to fend for herself in the orphanage and was brought up by parents who value perseverance in the face of difficulty and self-sufficiency. Her adopted mother, Deborah, understands that as she herself was also confined to a wheelchair for years due to a condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Here’s Tatyana in her own words, highlighted in “The Mighty“, a site devoted to telling the stories of people with disabilities, diseases and mental illness.

People have commented that they are “inspired” by my story. But these compliments, made with the best intentions, can sometimes miss the point. “Inspired” often means they feel sorry for my condition and what I went through in my early life, and feel they should count their own blessings for what they have. But what they are missing is that I am who I am today not in spite of my disabilities, but because of them.

All of us competing in the Olympics and Paralympics have had our own unique challenges, our own strengths and talents that we have nurtured, and our own weaknesses and disabilities that we have overcome. The games in Rio are a test of our ability to push physical and mental limitations, and a testament to humanity’s indomitable spirit to adapt and excel.

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Daniel Dias winning 100-meter freestyle at the 2016 Rio Paralympics

Empty stands are a common photo-op at all Olympic Games, but they were particularly obvious at the Rio Olympics. A debilitating economy and high ticket prices made sure of that.

But the Rio Paralympics, following only a little over two weeks after the Rio Olympics, was under even greater threat due to the economic hardship of Brazil: funds to support the travel of athletes to Brazil from developing economies were delayed, and only 12% of tickets to all Paralympic events were sold. The organizers feared empty venues and death by embarrassment.

According to the Economist, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, borrowed funds from state-run companies to ensure all Paralympians were at the Games as planned, while cutting funds in other areas. He also took down big screens around Rio to encourage Brazilians to attend. To make it easier, organizers slashed the price of tickets, making entry as low as USD3, and made strong appeals to the public to pack the venues and cheer.

It worked. As the Guardian wrote, ticket sales for the Rio Paralympics had topped 2 million at the time of the article on September 10. in fact, that day welcomed attendance of 167,675, which was better than the best day at the Rio Olympics, by about 10,000. At the time of that writing, total attendance was approaching 2.4 million, which would make it the second-most attended Paralympics after the London Paralympics in 2012.

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In those jam-packed venues, filled with the enthusiastic and raucous locals cheering on Team Brazil, emerged a star among stars. The day before the end of the Paralympics, a 28-year-old swimmer from Sao Paulo won his fourth gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle. Over the span of a 10-year career, Daniel Dias, who was born with malformed arms and legs, has won 24 medals in the Paralympics, including 14 gold medals.

Here’s how the Rio2016.com site put it.

Dias is a national hero, Brazil’s very own Michael Phelps and by the noise generated by the crowd inside the venue you could feel the weight of the nation’s hope on his shoulders. This would be pressure for some, but not Dias. “I try to enjoy everything. I feel it’s positive pressure and a great honour to represent this country with everybody watching on TV. I’m trying to do my best in the pool,” he said.

And how loud were the cheers for hometown hero, Daniel Dias, in his 100-meter freestyle final? Watch the clip below and listen to the roar of the crowd.

 

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Jefinho celebrates his equalising goal against China (Photo: Marcio Rodrigues/MPIX/CPB)

Neymar delivered for Brazil at the 2016 Olympic Games. Now it’s time for “Paralympic Pele”.

That moniker feels a bit patronizing…until you see Brazil football sensation, Jeferson da Conceicao Goncalve, aka Jefinho, weave through a crowd with the ball in total control before blasting it by the goal keeper. It’s amazing to watch under any circumstances, but when you realize that the football players on the pitch are blind, you realize you’re watching something outer worldly.jefinho-portrait

If not for Jefinho, Brazil would not have made it to the finals against Iran in five-aside football at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Brazil won 1-0, to take gold for their fourth straight Paralympics since the sports debut at the 2004 Athens Games.

“I always thought about this moment: listening to our national anthem in a packed stadium at home with a Paralympic gold medal around my neck,” he said in this article from paralympic.org. “We are used to winning, but doing it in our country is different and beautiful.”

In the semi-finals against China, with Brazil behind 1-0, Jefinho took control and scored two spectacular goals. Imagine playing five-on-five soccer with blindfolds on. You can hear the sound of the ball as they are designed with small objects inside that rattle around and indicate audibly where the ball is for the players. They can hear the directions of their coach and other players, as well as their goal keeper, who under the rules, can be fully sighted.

That’s why it’s so important for the spectators to keep it quiet so that the players can perform. And yet, this is Brazil, where they like to get loud, and it’s soccer, which is religion in Brazil.

“It’s so difficult. We’re trying but we really want to shout,” said Sonia Lima, in this Reuters article. “When they get near the goal I just want to scream: ‘Take a shot dammit.'”

Fortunately, Jefinho did. Watch the video below in amazement!

The 2016 Summer Paralympics will take place in Rio de Janeiro from September 7 to 18. And while these are the eighteenth Paralympic Games, and they get considerably less press and attention than the Olympic Games that precede them, there is no doubt that the participants in the Paralympics are athletes, amazing athletes, in ways difficult for the majority of us who have a body with fully functioning parts to comprehend.

To many of us, those who are, for example, blind or deaf, have a missing limb or two, are thought to be at a disadvantage. My current understanding is that the world and the rules we live with were built first for the average person in mind. But with the changes in laws and mindsets in many countries, and thriving disabled role models reflected back to us in film, television and sport as enabled athletes, the perceptions of many are changing.

Tony Dee sings Yes I Can

In Japan for example, the government has challenged the private sector with the task of ensuring that 2% of its workforce is made up of disabled or special needs employees. In the early years, companies struggled to find the talent who could be employed and do work that was meaningful for both the employee and the employer. Today, leaders and employees alike are far more experienced in the hiring of and adjusting to the disabled, and they in turn are become more experienced in the workplace, gaining greater skills and knowledge.

Role models, as I have written several times in the past, are so important. Channel Four, one of the major television stations in England, is the broadcaster of the Paralympic Games for England. And to promote the 2016 Paralympic Games, they produced an absolutely fantastic video that showcases “superhuman” abilities. You have likely seen it. The nearly 3-minute video is called “Yes I Can”, a Sammy Davis Jr classic.

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Alvin Law

 

What’s wonderful about this promotional video is Channel Four’s emphasis not just of amazing athletes, but also of “ordinary” people: musicians and dancers, office workers, moms and kids. The video opens with Canadian drummer, Alvin Law, who was born without arms and has played drums with his feet for 45 years. “It’s so weird that this song is called ‘Yes I Can’ because it was my mantra in our home growing up. My mum and dad said it till I was TIRED of it. There’s no such word as can’t. This is sort of that same thing but with an incredibly positive spin and makes perfect sense to me.”

Law went on to say that “this is not about disability, this is about crazy talent.”

I could not agree more. I can almost feel the soft abrasions of my perceptions shifting as I watch this amazing and uplifting video.

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George Eyser’s left leg.

He won six medals in one day, including three gold and two silver medals, at the Third Olympiad, the 1904 St Louis Olympics.

This despite his competitors having a leg up on him. Literally.

George Eyser portraitThe St Louis Summer Games was the first time medals had been awarded to the top three finishers of an event, and it was also the first time that an athlete had performed with a leg prosthesis. American, George Eyser, had lost his left leg in an accident involving a train, so he ambulated and competed using a wooden leg.

At the top of the page is a picture of the prosthesis, which I admit, looks pretty good for early 20th century medical technology. Even so, try to imagine Eyser running fast enough or jump high enough on that wooden leg. Try to imagine him sticking a dismount off of the horizontal bar. I can’t. And yet, he won gold in the parallel bars, long horse vault, as well as the 25-foot rope climbing events, took silver in the pommel horse, and bronze in the horizontal bar. At the least the last activity mentioned didn’t require so much from the legs.

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Natalie du Toit

It wasn’t until 2008 when the second athlete with a prosthesis for a leg performed in the Olympics – Natalie du Toit, a swimmer from South Africa who competed in the 10 kilometer swimming marathon. More famously another South African, double-amputee Oscar PistoriusOscar Pistorius, ran in the 400-meter race at the 2012 London Olympics on carbon-fiber prosthetics. Those j-shaped modern engineering miracles and Pistorius’ athletic ability earned the runner the very cool nickname, Blade Runner, once upon a time.

It is Eyser alone, of this incredible trio of athletes, who stands firmly as Olympic champion.

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Oscar Pistorius
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Russell Mockridge and Lionel Cox win gold in the 2000-meter tandem event at the 1952 Games in Helsinki

The bicycle built for two, made famous in the 1892 song “Dasiy Bell”.

Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer do!
I’m half crazy, All for the love of you!
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle made for two.

Did you know that bicycles built for two were also vehicles for Olympic competition? Tandem racing over 2000 meters was an Olympic event from the first modern Games in 1896 in Athens, to the 1972 Games in Munich.

In 1952, at the Helsinki Olympic Games, two Australian cyclists, Lionel Cox and Russell Mockridge, decided to compete in the tandem cycling event despite never having ridden on a tandem bike together. In fact, not only had they not practiced together before arriving in Helsinki, they didn’t even have a tandem bike to compete on. They eventually took on a discarded bicycle from the British team. They had to actually assemble it on their own before practicing for the first time.

On a tandem bike, one cyclist can ease off the pedalling while the other pedals hard, but if both cyclists pedal hard, you can generate speeds significantly greater than a cyclist on a single-seat bike. In one of the heats prior to the finals of the 2000 meter competition, the Australians were leading when Mockridge, who was seated up front, eased up at the end. The result was a photo finish that took considerable time before the judges declared the winner of the elimination heat. Mockridge and Cox went on to win gold, in fact the second one for Mockridge that day. (He had won gold in the men’s 1000 meter time trial.)

Although the tandem cycling event was discontinued, it still exists in the Paralympics where a blind or visually impaired person is seated in the rear seat. In the front seat is a sighted person who is not a professional cyclist.

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Great Britain’s Helen Scott and Aileen McGlynn during a training session at the velodrome in the Olympic Park Photo: PA
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Wheelchair racers whose legs are paralyzed, but whose leg muscles are electro-stimulated to move

 

We cringe when we hear about yet another doping case in sports. Dopers are cheaters! We hope that international bodies like World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) can stay close with the shadow chemists who continue to devise new ways to mask the fingerprints of performance enhancing agents.

We thrill to see a double amputee sprint on carbon-fiber blades, but we worry if they will one day far outpace sprinters who race on legs they were born with. Unfair advantage!

The truth is science and technology, if it had a will of its own, is ever eager to advance, solve problems, and push the inside of the envelope. The infamous Oscar Pistorius was allowed to compete at the 2012 Olympics on his blades, running in the 400 meter and 4X400 meter competitions. Technology in this case did not afford the runner an advantage to take him to the elite levels of sprinting.

But we all know, it’s a matter of time. The “Six-Million Dollar Man” Scenario, where a given person with various prostheses and enhancements will be “better than he was. Better….stronger….faster.” The Six Million Dollar Man debuted on American television in 1973. If the main character, Steve Austin, wanted to participate in the 1976 Olympic Games, he would have won gold in almost every athletic event. Why he wasted time as a secret agent for the OSI is beyond me.

The Six Million Dollar Man

So what does the future hold? Clearly, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs will continue to look for ways for people with disabilities to return to so-called “normalcy”. They will also look for ways to give “normal” people super-human abilities. In the case of organized sports, the nature of competition will continue to change. In fact, it already has.

When technology creates a totally different standard of performance, new competitions arise, as was explained in this Wired Magazine article from 2012.

When such devices are perfected to the point that they can be used for athletic purposes, we’ll be looking at an entirely new concept of sport. It’s doubtful the Olympics will ever feature exoskelletally assisted runners or weightlifters, but what’s to say that a different type of venue won’t arise for such a thing? “I think that once the technology is proven to exceed normal human function, then the stage will be set for the introduction of a whole new type of enhanced sporting entertainment,” said Matthew Garibaldi, director of the Orthotic and Prosthetic Centers for the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UC San Francisco.

In fact, two competitions that put technology front and center have emerged. As explained in this Inverse.com article, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich organizes a competition called the Cybathlon, the next one scheduled on October 6. It’s similar to the Paralympics, in which disabled people use technology, like a prosthesis, and the athlete

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British Chamber of Commerce Japan panel discussion: “What About the Paralympics”.

Rina Akiyama is totally blind in both eyes, but that didn’t stop her from learning how to swim and eventually becoming a champion swimmer.

Hisano Tezuka is deaf, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a skiier, determined to compete at the highest levels in the Deaflympics.

Daisuke Uehara does not have the use of his legs, and was turned off by people encouraging him to take up wheelchair basketball, and gladly took up the sport of ice sledge hockey, helping Japan to Paralympic silver at the Vancouver Games in 2010.

On March 25, I had the honor of listening to the stories and views of these retired athletes, who were asked by the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan to join a panel discussion entitled, “What About the Paralympics”, an event with the aim of raising awareness of Paralympic sports in Japan. In my research on the Olympics, I have spent little time on the Paralympics, an event that started with a competition for war veterans with spinal cord injuries at the same time as the 1948 London Games. The first official Paralympic Games were held in conjunction with the Rome Summer Games in 1960, and have continued ever since, growing consistently in popularity and significance.

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Rina Akiyama, gold medal winner of the 100-meter backstroke at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London_Getty Images

What I learned is that the Paralympic Games is not about disabled athletes, but about athletes with tremendous ability. If Japan (or any society) values diversity and strives to be more inclusive, then a mind shift needs to take place. The BCCJ, like elements in the public sector, the private sector and NPOs, believe people need to stop making the so-called disability of a person the number one characteristic of a person, and need to start understanding the abilities of that person that allow growth and avenues for that person to achieve his or her potential.

In the case of Paralympic participants, these people are athletes, some of them as intense and brilliant as their so-called able-bodied colleagues.

Akiyama began swimming at 3. At 10, she read a book about the Paralympics, and from