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The 1964 Tokyo Paralympics Showed Signs Of The Major Global Event That Was To Come

By Chrös McDougall | March 03, 2020, 12:01 a.m. (ET)


The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 run July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, with the Paralympic Games following Aug. 25-Sept. 6, and while they may be months away there’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Each Tuesday leading up to the Games, TeamUSA.org will present a nugget you should read about – from athletes to watch to storylines to follow to Japanese culture and landmarks – as part of “Tokyo 2020 Tuesday.” Follow along on social media with the hashtag #Tokyo2020Tuesday.


With more than 4,000 fans looking on, including a prince and princess, the Opening Ceremony for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 1964 was a big deal. Relatively speaking.

The nascent movement, spawned in the aftermath of World War II when paralyzed veterans at an English hospital came together in 1948 for an archery contest, had been growing. Subsequent editions of the Stoke Mandeville Games, named for said hospital, added more sports, and then athletes from more countries. The 1960 edition, considered to be the first official Paralympic Games, was held that September in Rome, the same city where the Olympic Games had just wrapped up.

Those 1964 Paralympic Games, held over just five days that November in Tokyo, proved to be the next important milestone.

For one thing, the 1964 Games marked the first known usage of the term “Paralympic.” Like how the first Super Bowl wasn’t actually called the Super Bowl at the time, the Paralympic Games officially went by different names in the early years. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the term, building off the Greek word “para,” or beside, was adopted.

Also notable was the fact that Japan even stepped up to host such an event, as the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games didn’t become a package deal — or truly “beside” one another — for years to come. But with postwar Japan welcoming the world for the Olympic Games, officials decided they might as well go all in.

The Paralympic Games were off to a rousing start at Tokyo’s Oda Field with a mid-morning Opening Ceremony complete with a marching band, 500 doves, the reading of an oath and a handful of VIPs — none more important than Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko, who went on to become the host country’s emperor and empress.

A total of 378 athletes representing 21 countries took part in the Tokyo Games, numbers similar to those from four years earlier. They competed across nine sports, but the 144 medal events nearly tripled the number from Rome. Among those events was the first wheelchair race, covering 60 meters, as well as six sports that remain part of the Paralympic program today.

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An aerial view of Tokyo on Sept. 12, 2013 in Tokyo.


Around 700 reporters documented all of the action, while 100,000 fans attended, according to reports.

At the time, Para sports were mostly unknown in Japan, and the 1964 Games were credited with helping raise awareness for people with disabilities.

This summer, Tokyo becomes the first city to host the Paralympic Games twice, and the 1964 edition will look small in comparison.

Beginning with an Opening Ceremony at the 60,000-seat main stadium on Aug. 25, the Games' big-time feel should only continue from there.

Around 4,400 athletes are expected to take part in the Games, a number that would set a new high-water mark for the Paralympics, and early signs indicate that Tokyo will surpass the unprecedented 2.1 million tickets sold at the London 2012 Games. Fans, too, continue to have more opportunities than ever to watch the action from afar, with more events being broadcast live in 2020 than in any previous year.

Some aspects will have a familiar feel. Several venues from the 1964 Games are being reused for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, for example. Archery, swimming, table tennis, track and field, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair fencing all remain on the program, as well.

Gone, however, is dartchery, a mix between darts and archery, and snooker. They’ve been replaced by sports such as cycling, paratriathlon and wheelchair rugby. Weightlifting is no longer a Paralympic sport either, though powerlifting is. In total, the 2020 Games will feature 22 sports broken up into 537 medal events, including the Paralympic debuts of badminton and taekwondo. The Games will also run 13 days, more than twice as long as the first edition.

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic movements for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.