The Paralympic Games

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Giancarlo Pani SJ

 Giancarlo Pani SJ / Sport / Published Date:18 November 2021/Last Updated Date:2 December 2021


Free Article

In Tokyo, three Italian women captured the attention of the world in the 100 meter sprint [1]: all three ran with a prosthetic leg and set a record. On the same track a month earlier, another Italian, Marcell Jacobs, had surprisingly won Olympic gold, breaking the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters in 9.80s, the fastest Italian after the legendary Jamaican Usain Bolt set his record of 9.58s.

The first of the three Italian women, Ambra Sabatini, aged 19, was a revelation at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. She crossed the finish line of the 100 meters in 14.11s, winning gold with a world record in her category, despite the rain. She was closely followed by Martina Caironi (14.46s) and Monica Contrafatto (14.73s): the three Italian women, waving the Italian flag, mounted the Olympic podium together. It was an historic moment. Several newspapers published a full-page photo, featuring the athletes with their smiles of joy at this truly memorable achievement.

The real victory, however, was something else: it was the resounding defeat of prejudice.[2] The Games demonstrated once again – if there was any need – that it is possible to run without a leg, swim without arms, pedal without legs, jump without limbs, play table tennis without hands, fence without hands and feet…

La Civilta Cattolica

“In Italy,” wrote Ambra the day after winning the gold medal, “there are still many physical barriers, but even more mental ones: if we started to break down the latter, everything would be much easier. For me, moving about with a prosthesis, there are no big problems. Of course, if everything was made to measure for people with disabilities, as in the Paralympic village, it would be a dream. Life is so much better without narrow sidewalks, few ramps, inaccessible bathrooms, not to mention those who park in the disabled spaces.”[3]

On September 22, the champion had a meeting with Pope Francis, who received in audience a delegation of athletes of the Fiamme Gialle participating in the Games. Ambra was the focus of an unscheduled moment: she had the idea of putting her own gold medal around the pope’s neck. It was a spontaneous and particularly touching gesture, which he appreciated.[4]

Every medal, a story

Behind each of the three winners is a dramatic and incredible story. In 2019 Ambra had a future as a middle-distance runner, but while riding a scooter with her father, she was involved in a road accident.  Hit by a car going the opposite way, she lost her left leg, which was amputated above the knee. It seemed like a life lost with her dreams shattered, but instead she had the courage to put her life back on the line, and two years later, with the help of Martina, she won gold in Tokyo. She went from being resuscitated in hospital to a world sprinting record.

Monica Contrafatto, 40, is the first woman corporal of the Italian Army to be decorated because she was a victim of an attack in the war in Afghanistan in which she lost a leg.  She  won bronze this time, but had won gold in 2018 in the 100 meters in Sydney, at the Invictus Games. Her dedication was most moving: “I want to dedicate my medal to that other country that took something from me, but actually gave me so much, Afghanistan.”[5] The greatest joy at the Games was that of having transformed a tragedy into a victory.

Martina Caironi, 32, of the Fiamme Gialle, who also had her leg amputated after an accident when she was 18, won silver.[6] She had won two golds in 2016, one in the 100 meters and the other in the long jump. She was among the first to adopt the prostheses of Oscar Pistorius and volunteered in schools, sharing her experience. Above all, she proved to be the inspirer of Ambra and Monica. When  Ambra won, Martina rejoiced at her success, as documented by that spontaneous and unforgettable image on the wet track, and proclaimed her as “queen,” miming a crown with her hands.

Bebe Vio at the European Parliament

Tokyo confirmed the sporting excellence of Beatrice Vio, known as Bebe, 24 years old. Struck down with meningitis at the age of 11, with necrosis in her forearms and lower limbs, she had to have her hands and legs amputated. The following year, after operations and several months in hospital, she resumed fencing, which she was passionate about, and became a champion. Over the years she has claimed 11 gold medals, two silver, and won another gold medal in Tokyo in the individual foil. That day, everyone was struck by her tears of joy and uncontrollable crying, as in 2016, but with greater awareness of her situation. The explanation: “Last April 4th I had to have an operation and it seemed that I would not be at these Paralympics […] because I had a terrible staph infection. […] I was set for an amputation of my left limb within two weeks, and death within a short time.”[7] She speaks of her participation in the Games as a true miracle.

As a surprise, on September 15, Bebe was invited by the president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to be the guest of honor at the Euro Parliament’s  plenary session for the annual State of the Union address. Bebe was welcomed with a standing ovation and  the president gave a singular speech of praise: “Her story is the emblem of a rebirth against all odds,” of a success that stems from “talent, tenacity and indefatigable positivity; […] she is the image of her generation.”[8] The speech had a surprise conclusion: “Let us be inspired by Bebe and all the young people who change our perception of what is possible, who show us that it is possible to be who we want to be. And that it is possible to achieve everything we believe in. […] This is the spirit of the founders of Europe and the next generation of Europe.”[9] Her portrait was that of a special person. Her credo: “If it seems impossible, then it can be done.”[10]  Carefree and optimistic, Bebe seemed to embody the joy of living, “the art of happiness.”[11]

Athletes at the Quirinale and Palazzo Chigi

On September 23, the athletes who participated in the Games were received at the Quirinale by President Sergio Mattarella, who congratulated them: “You have exceeded the expectations of all Italians. The world looks at us with envy and admiration. […] There are times when sport takes on broader meanings. Our country is recovering and felt represented by you. This has been a great summer for sport.”[12] The president closed with a special thanks to the Azzurri: “I conclude by underlining that you have been a team; you have shown friendship and integration, and you have urged attention to sport and the need to practice sport. […] Thanks to all of you for honoring the flag in the Olympics and Paralympics. Very good, 109 medals, never so many.”[13] The flag bearers gave the president the tricolor with the signatures of all the athletes. Mentioning the Paralympics, Mattarella turned in particular to Bebe Vio and told her: “Yours has been an uplifting victory over adversity.”[14]

During the meeting at the Quirinale, the president of the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI), Giovanni Malagò, spoke: “Sport is never an end in itself, and even more so in this moment: that is why the Italian team could not wait to wave the tricolor on the podium. They are really brothers and sisters of Italy. […] There has never been an Olympics with 40 medals for Italy in history,” he added; “never have all the regions had at least one representative, never has there been an Italy with 46 athletes from all five continents, demonstrating a multi-ethnic and perfectly integrated team.”[15] Luca Pancalli, president of the Italian Paralympic Committee, echoed him: “At the time [when Mattarella received them, before leaving] that flag was loaded with the weight of hopes and emotions, today we are handing it back loaded with 69 medals, but not with fewer dreams or ambitions, because Italian Olympic and Paralympic sport is projected into the future.” He concluded: “We don’t want emotional reactions; we want real action.”[16]

Finally, the athletes were received at Palazzo Chigi by Prime Minister Draghi, to whom they gave a bicycle with an engraved Italian flag. “Often, when we talk about the future, it is easy to get lost in abstract concepts,” said Draghi. “Here, instead, I see the generation that wants to change Italy and that, I am sure, will succeed. You are symbols of integration and the  overcoming of  barriers. It’s up to us as a government to enable you and your peers to unleash your energy.”[17]

Defeating prejudices

Ambra, a few days before the race, had to take off her prosthesis as it was bothering her. She went back to using crutches to be able to walk. She suffered the pitying looks of the people she met, since she was a girl who had lost a leg. But inside she thought, “If you knew how much I run, maybe you would look at me differently.”[18]

Here is another of the mental barriers these athletes face: people’s pity. The wounds of the disabled are visible and people pity them. Yet they are no less than we are. Perhaps they are richer than we are, because they have had the courage to face their challenges and respond in a lively fashion. If we dare to look inside ourselves, we discover that we, like everyone else, have wounds. They are invisible to others, but they are there, and sometimes they are serious and ruin one’s existence: one must have the courage to question oneself and fight to live.

The story of the “fish man” who swims without arms is impressive.  Zheng Tao, 30, has been nicknamed “the flying fish.” The Chinese swimmer lost his arms as a child after a violent electric shock, but he never gave up. He won four golds in Tokyo and dedicated them to his young daughter, telling her simply: “Look at me! I can swim so fast even though I have no arms.”[19] One should not admire the athlete because of the number of gold medals, but because he fought for his life.

The story of Jessica Long is extraordinary. Aged 29 she won her 26th medal in swimming in the women’s 400 meters freestyle. As a child, born in Siberia and adopted at 12 months by an American family, she had a rare disease and her legs had to be amputated. After the operation she began to train in swimming and at the age of 12 took part in the Paralympics for the first time, becoming a multiple champion. During these Olympic Games, a car manufacturer launched a commercial that marked the main moments of her life in an original way, arousing emotions, but also highlighting the expectations of her adoptive parents that they dreamed of and hoped for with love.[20]

Extraordinary achievements in Tokyo

If the participation of disabled people in sports is always an event, this year something extraordinary happened: for Italy a record 69 medals marked an historic Paralympic Games. For the Italian team the result was better than expected: certainly it was less than the Paralympics in Rome, in 1960, when 80 medals were won, but in these games there was a difference: then 23 nations competed with about 400 athletes, this year in Tokyo there were 4,300 athletes from 196 nations. The Tokyo result was exceptional. In the national team, the youngest athlete was Matteo Parenzan, 18 years old, champion at table tennis; the doyenne was Francesca Porcellato, 50 years old, champion at para-cycling, who was taking part in her 11th Olympics.

In swimming there was the first surprise of the Games in terms of medals. The first Italian medal won on August 25 by Francesco Bettella, 32 years old, quadriplegic, in the 100 meter backstroke. Bettella is a biomechanical engineer, a technician specializing  in the design of prostheses. Francesco Bocciardo, 27, who has suffered from spastic diplegia since birth, won two gold medals in the 200-meter freestyle and the 100-meter backstroke. His amazing results came shortly after the exceptional result of his fellow swimmer Carlotta Gigli – 20 years old, visually impaired, affected at primary school by Stargardt’s disease (degenerative retinopathy) – who won five medals: two gold, two silver and a bronze.[21] Among the visually impaired, we must remember Oney Tapia, 45 years old, of Cuban origin and an individual  with an incredible charge of joy, with  two bronzes in the discus throw and the shot put. After becoming blind in an accident at work he partially regained his sight. Above all there was Assunta Legnante, 43 years old, who in 2012 became blind, after several Olympic victories, but did not give up and, despite no vision, in Tokyo, won two silvers, one in the weight-lifting and one in the discus, and is ready to get back into the competition in Paris to regain the gold.

All Paralympic athletes deserve to be named, but one we cannot omit is Giovanni Achenza.  50 years old, he won a wonderful bronze medal in the triathlon. Already in 2016 he had come third in Rio. “If I am here,” he said in an interview, “I owe it to Alex Zanardi.” [22] He is an indispensable reference point and an inspirational model for many disabled people, after his accident in Formula 1 and with his “Objective 3”[23] in para-cycling. In a certain sense, the 70th ideal Italian medal of the Paralympic Games is Zanardi’s!

Rewards at the Games

With regard to the prize money for the Olympic Games, we note that the figures are established by the individual countries that award them and that they are different for the Olympic Games and for the Paralympic Games. The latter are less well rewarded.

Some countries pay stratospheric sums: for example, the Philippines rewarded their first gold medal winner with approx. 560,000 dollars; France rewards gold with approx. USD50,000; the United Kingdom, on the other hand, does not give any extraordinary payment to winners. The United States stands out, where this year, for the first time, the payment of Paralympic athletes was equal to that of the others: USD 37,500 for gold, 22,500 for silver and 15,000 for bronze.[24]

In Italy, at the Olympic Games, a gold medal is worth approx. USD200,000, silver approx. USD100,000 and bronze approx. USD70,000; at the Paralympics, gold receives 85,000, silver 45,000 and bronze 30,000.[25] One wonders why there is such a large gap between the categories of awards for first, so much so that the latter are less than half of the former. If one bears in mind that the training of a disabled person and the consequent organization are certainly more expensive than those of a normally able-bodied athlete, how can one explain such a great difference in the rewards? In addition, the rewards are  set by CONI, whose directors should be well aware of the difficulties faced by disabled people. A petition has been sent  to the government for the equalization of award money for Olympians and Paralympians, since the Italian Constitution states in Article 3 that “all citizens have equal social dignity.”[26] Bebe Vio, in an interview, revealed her dream: “To unite the Olympic and Paralympic worlds in a single federation.”[27]

A civilized country

The Games have indicated the degree of civilization of a nation.  A civilized country is one in which a disabled person can realize himself or herself, like everyone else. A person without a leg must be helped to be able to walk, to train in a gym, to run, and even to participate in the Olympic Games. A disabled person in a wheelchair must be able to go up and down a sidewalk, move without being hindered by motorcycles that may invade the path, and without scooters parked illegally and clumsily everywhere. Is Italy becoming a more civilized country? It must be said clearly that we are far from this goal, but something significant has been done and the Paralympics have shown the way.

This is also true in the sphere of visibility. During the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, the musical performance of the violinist and athlete Manami Ito was unusual. Without her right arm, while performing the piece she was not in the least bit uncomfortable about showing her prosthesis on her amputated arm; indeed she was able to smile. In 2004, at the age of 16, she lost  her right arm in an accident. Thanks to her strength of will, she became the first Japanese nurse with a prosthetic limb, but she had not lost her passion for the violin and, thanks to the development of modern prosthesis, her skill is now appreciated internationally.[28]

Athletes have taught us that prejudices may  be broken down, but not necessarily on a permanent basis. It is an evolving process that must be continually renewed. Above all we should think more about “normality,” even in our language. We call the disabled “differently abled,” but we must not forget that they easily define themselves as handicapped, paralytic, lame and so on.  Perhaps  we should really call them “differently normal” or simply “normal,” because they are people like us, who have had the experience of having suffered more than us, and perhaps for this reason they have greater tenacity and courage.

Finally, it should be noted that the Paralympics have aroused in recent years a new sensitivity and attention toward the disabled all around the world,  a sensibility and an attention that have grown more and more, because at each Paralympic Games there has been a qualitative leap compared to the previous one.  Among  athletes and supporting structures there has been an increase in the strength, courage, dedication and passion for the competition, and at the same time a lot of joy in life.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.12 art. 1, 1121: 10.32009/22072446.1121.1

[1].      Category T63: where “T” stands for track racing and “63” indicates unilateral transfemoral amputation with prosthesis.

[2].      For the history of the Paralympics, see the article by G. Mattei, “Quando le Paralimpiadi si facevano in Vaticano”, in Oss. Rom., August 21, 2021, 8. The Games of the disabled would have been held in the early twentieth century in the Belvedere Courtyard, in the presence of Pius X.

[3].      A. Sabatini, “Gli sguardi pietosi della gente, barriere mentali da abbattere”, in La Stampa, September 6, 2021, 22.

[4].       Cf. S. Zuppa, “Ambra, la medaglia a Papa Francesco”, in La Nazione, September 24, 2021.

[5].      L. Coen, “Triplete nei 100 metri: Sabatini, Caironi e Contrafatto sul podio. Con record e dedica”, in Il Fatto Quotidiano, September 6, 2021, 22.

[6].      On the day of the victory the athlete signed an article for the Vatican newspaper: M. Caironi, “Vi sembro debole? No, non lo sono”, in Oss. Rom., September 4, 2021, 2.

[7].      L. Coen, “Paralimpiadi, Bebe Vio da leggenda: 2° oro. Poi le lacrime: ‘Ad aprile ero quasi morta’”, in Il Fatto Quotidiano, August 29, 2021, 15.

[8]  .    F. Basso, “Il discorso dell’Unione”, in Corriere della Sera, September 16, 2021, 14.

[9]  .    Ibid.

[10].    A. Catapano, “Bebe Vio star a Strasburgo. Standing ovation in aula. ‘Una leader cui ispirarsi’”, in Il Messaggero, September 16, 2021, 7.

[11].    Ibid.

[12].    C. Vecchio, “Draghi e Mattarella agli eroi di Tokyo: ‘Il mondo ora ci guarda con invidia’”, in La Repubblica, September 24, 2021, 61.

[13].    “Olimpiadi. Mattarella riceve i medagliati: ‘Siete stati squadra, avete emozionato’” (https://sport.sky.it/olimpiadi/2021/09/23/olimpiadi-tokyo-quirinale-riconsegna-tricolore-mattarella), September 23, 2021.

[14].    C. Vecchio, “Draghi e Mattarella agli eroi di Tokyo…”, op. cit., 61.

[15].    “Mattarella agli atleti di Tokyo: ‘L’Italia si è sentita rappresentata da voi’” (https://giornalesm.com/mattarella-agli-atleti-di-tokyo-litalia-si-e-sentita-rappresentata-da-voi), September 23, 2021.

[16].     “Olimpiadi. Mattarella riceve i medagliati…”, op. cit.

[17].    C. Vecchio, “Draghi e Mattarella agli eroi di Tokyo…”, op. cit., 7.

[18].    A. Sabatini, “Gli sguardi pietosi della gente…”, op. cit., 22.

[19].    “Paralimpiadi Tokio 2020: Zheng Tao, la star del nuoto senza braccia: in Giappone quattro ori” (www.eurosport.it/paralimpiadi/tokyo-2020/2021/paralimpiadi-tokyo-2020-zheng-tao-la-star-del-nuoto-senza-braccia-in-giappone-quattro-ori_sto8521882/story.shtml).

[20].     See “Olimpiadi. Jessica Long e Toyota: l’adozione è la vera speranza di ogni bambino abbandonato” (www.aibi.it/ita/olimpiadi-jessica-long-e-toyota-ladozione-e-la-vera-speranza-di-ogni-bambino-abbandonato), July 26, 2021. Ai.Bi. is for Amici dei Bambini, the “Friends of Children” association.

[21].    Carlotta Gigli has set 11 Paralympic world records, with 23 medals, including 17 gold.

[22].     See La Stampa, September 6, 2021, 24.

[23]. This is a charity initiative carried out for Italy on that dramatic day,  June 19, 2020, when in a handbike relay race, Alex was seriously injured.

[24].     See E. Moro, “A Tokyo le medaglie paralimpiche USA varranno (finalmente) quanto le altre – e perché prima no?” (www.cosmopolitan.com/it/lifecoach/news-attualita/a37156653/atleti-paralimpici-pagati-quanto-gli-altri-tokyo-2020), September 1, 2021.

[25].     Cf. F. Bianchi, “Olimpiadi Tokyo, aumentano i premi: un oro vale 180 mila euro”, in La Repubblica, June 17, 2021; Il Giornale d’Italia, August 24, 2021; D. Rabotti, “L’oro paralimpico paga meno della metà”, in Quotidiano Nazionale, September 27, 2021.

[26].     See “Equiparazione dei premi dei medagliati paralimpici a quelli olimpici: raccolte già 20 mila firme”, in Gazzetta di Parma, September 9, 2021.

[27].    “Bebe Vio: Sogno un giorno di unire Olimpiadi e Paralimpiadi” (www.pianetascherma.com/2021/05/07/intervista-bebe-vio-sogno-olimpiadi-paralimpiadi-tutti-assieme), May 7, 2021.

[28].     See “Manami Ito, la violinista-atleta che ha incantato le Paralimpiadi»” (https://it.euronews.com/2021/09/02/manami-ito-la-violinista-atleta-che-ha-incantato-le-paralimpiadi), September 2, 2021.