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.


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.

Abdullatif Baka of Algeria
Imagine wearing a pair of your friend’s eyeglasses, you know, the ones that look as thick as the bottom of a coca cola bottle. When you put them on, you can make out shapes and sizes, but you quickly remove them because your new view of the world is just too big a shock to handle.

Now imagine wearing those glasses and racing around a track in one of the most important events in your life.

Paralympians are amazing. And in the 1500 meter track finals at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, an amazing fact blew up the internet. Four runners whose visual acuity allows them to see the world in fuzzy shapes and colors, completed the race in 3 minutes and 49.59 seconds or faster. Yes, that is a faster time than the gold medal time in the 1500 meter track finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In other words, the fourth placed finisher, Paralympian Fouad Baka of Algeria, had a faster time than Olympian Matthew Centrowitz of the US, who completed his run in 3 minutes and 50 seconds. Fouad’s brother, Abdellatif Baka took gold in the 1500 meter Paralympic finals in 3 minutes and 48.29 seconds.

This is close to how it looks for these Paralympians.
So the world asked, how could the very best, fully sighted Olympians in the 1500 meters get out-timed by runners who have the equivalent of Vaseline smeared over their eyes? This is where the comments section of this Huffington Post article proved interesting and insightful.

Apparently, world-class runners in the 1500 can easily run faster times. In fact, if you look at the heats and semifinals, the winners finished in times of 3 minutes 38 or 39 seconds. Centrowitz finished 5th in his first heat with a time of 3:39:31 seconds, significantly faster than his gold-medal winning performance.

Additionally, according to those who have experience in the 1500 race, we very rarely see a world-class runner run full-blast throughout a competition, particularly in the finals. The 1500 is considered a highly tactical race, where the objective is not to run the fastest time, but to be first at the finish.

OK, that sounds fairly common sensical. But there appears to be a strong perception that running in the trail of one’s rivals, or drafting, reduces the air resistance significantly enough to make a difference, either physically or psychologically for a runner. Thus, tactically, the best runners avoid being the front runner for most of the race, which would slow down the pace relative to the heats. And when they see their opportunity, they sprint to the finish and hope they have more gas in the tank than the others.

Perhaps another way to think about it…. Imagine the Paralympians and Olympians competing in the same race. The Paralympians would set a very fast pace, and the Olympians would draft behind the front runners, who are likely running at full capacity. The Olympians, who can easily keep up, would have far more in the tank to kick into a higher gear, and likely leave the Paralympians behind.

Is that actually the case? Would anyone be willing to test that theory?

Who cares. Let’s go back to the original thought. These Paralympians are amazing!

Ibrahim Hamadtou at the Rio Paralympics.

The Paralympics are a revelation, an everyday reminder that our perceptions about what we can all physically accomplish is likely way below reality. Sometimes these reminders are so brash, they exceed our limited levels of experience and amaze us.

A case in point is Ibrahim Hamadtou of Egypt. When he was 10, he lost his arms in a train accident. Today, the 43-year-old table tennis player has astounded spectators at the Rio Paralympics, as well as new fans on the internet. In table tennis, the general classifications are for those who need to play in a sitting position, and those who can play in a standing position. Hamadtou can stand, but different from a majority of this opponents, he has no hands with which to hold the racquet.

Instead, he holds the ping pong paddle in his mouth, and adjusts his body, neck and head so quickly and gracefully that he can return a majority of the shots that come his way. He qualified for these Paralympics by finishing second in the 2016 African Championships. In his first Paralympics, he played two games, lost them both, and did not medal. But his skill in performing at the level he does without both arms is astounding.

His serve requires the use of his shoeless foot, where he grabs the ball from the floor, flips it up in the air, and sends the ball across the net with the table tennis raquet gripped tightly between his teeth. There are no coaches that teach this style. There are no YouTube videos he could consult. Although now there are, and they are videos of Hamadtou.

“I want to tell everybody that nothing is impossible, and everybody should work hard for what you love and what you think is good for yourself,” Hamadtou told the Paralympics website before the games began. “The disability is not in arms or legs, the disability is to not persevere in whatever you would like to do.”