BEIJING – Many people with disabilities have additional underlying health needs that make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, so Winter Paralympians and their teams have to take extra precautions.
Unlike the Japanese Paralympians at the last Summer Games, none of the 29 para athletes from Japan competing in four snow sports — Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, biathlon and snowboarding — in Beijing have severe cerebral palsy or intellectual impairment.
Japan’s team consists of athletes with physical impairments such as total or partial limb deficiency, or those with reduced function in the legs as a result of illness or injury. Blind athletes are also taking part in the March 4-13 games.
An official from the Japan Para-Ski Federation said reports have highlighted how people with disabilities could be at increased risk from COVID-19, but the fear of the unknown is leaving him feeling stressed, anxious, and powerless.
“We have to be careful because the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people remains unknown. I’m worried because there are athletes with pre-existing medical conditions,” the official said.
At the end of 2021, as part of pre-Paralympic coronavirus precautions, the para ski federation updated its health and safety protocols after a rapid rise of Omicron cases among those who traveled overseas for training.
With the new guidance, there is an emphasis on athletes taking personal responsibility to reduce risk. But once an individual tests positive, the athlete, coach and physician take collective action to trace the transmission route and minimize the spread of infection.
Key takeaways from the guidance also included testing strategies for all athletic activities, and keeping detailed contact tracing logs that include information on training, meals and rest.
In addition to washing their hands, athletes with disabilities have to regularly clean and disinfect assistive equipment like wheelchairs, canes, crutches, braces and prosthetic limbs that come in constant contact with them and their surroundings.
“I think we can say the system was effective because we were able to prevent (infection) clusters,” said Rei Tahara, a senior member of the federation’s COVID-19 countermeasures working group.
Together with the International Olympic Committee and Beijing Games organizing committee, the International Paralympic Committee published two playbooks presented as guides “to a safe and successful games.”
Para athletes and team officials undergo a rigorous daily testing routine and are required to stay in a bubble to prevent the spread of coronavirus as China continues its zero-COVID policy.
A member of the Japanese Paralympic delegation called for precaution, prevention and prayer to make the Beijing Paralympics a success.
“All we can do is pray that nobody gets infected.”