My Tokyo Paralympics 2020 Journal by Jamie McPhilimey

My Tokyo Paralympic 2020 journal.
By Jamie McPhilimey

My Journey to Tokyo

The highlight of any sports photographer is to make it to an olympic event.  I have been lucky over my career to be an olympic photographer at many different olympic events. Even luckier to be part of the ParalympicsGB photography team.

Cannot believe I’ve been back a few months now, and finally got round writing this behind the scenes blog. I wanted to share my experiences of my trip to Japan covering the 2020 Paralympics. This has been my second Paralympics, it was definately different from Rio that’s for sure – no spectators, a lot more planning, paperwork, and preparation thanks to the pandemic.  But after everything we have all been through it was was always going to be a special event.

Are we going to the Paralympics?

With all the uncertainty surrounding the games and not being able to confirm if it would even go ahead.  The news was continually covering the rising Covid cases in Tokyo. It was really getting hard to get excited as the decision to go ahead was on a knife edge. 

My positivity changed at the end of July when a huge delivery arrived full of PARA GB team kit. As like in Rio this was to be worn throughout the event from flight to Tokyo to when returning to Heathrow. Only this time we also received varied facemasks, thermometers, and covid tests.

The Preparations

Luckily being part of the official team, a lot of the forms and bureaucracy was taken care of. All I had to do was  turn up at the airport at the correct time with my kit, which thankfully takes a lot of the pressure and stress away. But it was still not as straight forward thanks to very strict covid restrictions tplaced on us before we even boarded the plane to Tokyo.

My preparation started about 2 weeks before I left for Tokyo by taking my first of many PCR tests – in fact in the 5 days before my flight I had to take 3 more PCR tests and 3 Lateral Flow tests. Thankfully every test was negative which was a huge relief. However that was nothing compared to what we had to do in Tokyo.

And we are finally off

I arrived at Heathrow airport in head-to-toe in GB kit. A lovely lady from British Airways ushered my wife who was dropping me off into a ParalympicsGB parking area.  When I was getting all my photography and GB kit on to the trolley a young child came up to me and said he hoped I would win a medal.  Was so sweet, I politely informed him I was only a photographer.  He said in that case I hope you take lots of amazing pictures then! Although I will never know what it is to win an Olympic medal, it was such a privilege to wear the kit and be part of such a special team of athletes.

We are finally in Tokyo

After we arrived in Tokyo thankfully the 3-day quarantine hotel restrictions that we were expecting had been eased by the Japanese Government.  However every morning without fail we had to do our covid test by spitting into a tube, much better than our UK tests. We were also not allowed to walk off approved routes otherwise we would get pinged on our phones.  It was understandably very strict!

I was part of a four-man photography team, we quickly worked out our schedule for the first few days of the competition. Our core brief was to get an image of every UK athlete competing and every medal ceremony that there was a Paralympic GB athlete on the podium. We all had sports and events that we favoured so we worked through the first few days and mine was in the pool.

The Opening Ceremony

Before that however we had the opening ceremony to cover.  Just as for the Olympic Games, a month ago, Tokyo’s impressive National Stadium was the setting for the opening of the Paralympic Games.  The theme to this year Paralympics was “Moving Forward: We Have Wings”  and thus the theme of aviation, airplanes, airports, and everything that involved air travel.  In previous years, the ceremony has included personalities as diverse as Jose Carreras, Liza Minelli and Professor Stephen Hawking.

This time, the cast was predominantly Japanese, drawn from auditions which attracted some 5,500 from across the country.  It was a very colourful display and so much to see and take pictures of.  I was sat high up in the stands with my long lenses poised to capture the essence of the opening ceremony. Our first goal to capture as many images as possible of the Paralympic GB Flag bearers Ellie Simmons and John Stubbs – which we did!


Day 1 – Acquatics Centre

Opening ceremony over, I was happy to cover the swimming for the first 4 days.  It is a discipline that historically the Brits have done well at. On the first two days I covered the morning and evening sessions. Making sure we captured as many of the team in case they didn’t make it through to the final rounds (most of them did). Swimming provides some amazing images. I was more than happy to put up with the long days and humid conditions (also sore bum as the bench we sat on wasn’t the most comfortable).  There were always moments to be captured in the Aquatics Centre.  It’s not often you see an athlete walk out, take off their prosthetics and adjust their goggles with their feet.  Paralympics GB Team won so many medals, it was fantastic to shoot they definitely kept me on my toes.

During the course of the Paralympics, I covered quite a few different events, but overall, there was definitely a water theme going on. When the swimming got to the closing stages of the finals, I was just covering the evening sessions where the medals just kept on coming.  It did however give me the chance to get out of the aquatics centre and photograph some other sports in the morning and afternoons including Rowing, Powerlifting and Table Tennis.


And then the rain came but it didn’t dampen our spirits

When I received my Kit bag back in July, I didn’t think that I would be needing the waterproof trousers and jacket. However the weather definitely changed in the second week from hot & humid to rain – not just drizzle, but torrential downpours. One of the heaviest days was during the Para Canoeing, which obviously was outside. I ended up having to sit for about 2 hours in the rain, not glamourous but the benefit was that it made for dramatic pictures with lots of splash and grey skies. Luckily this was just a qualifying day, so no medals were won. When I came back a couple of days later to cover the finals the rain had gone, and the Brits took home a few medals.

The rainy weather did play havoc with some of the outdoor events which led to delays and cancellations.  Wheelchair tennis was one of the victims of the weather. But even with all the stopping and starting, the GB tennis squad were all doing so well. This meant that when it was my turn to cover the tennis on the last night of the competition. I had about 4 different matches to cover and play was only possible on the centre court as it had a roof.  Thankfully I did not get soaked again but it was a late one finishing at 2am.

Which would have been fine if I did not have to be up at the crack of dawn to cover the archery the following morning.

paralympics photographer

Over the last few days of the event, I headed to the Olympic Stadium. The Athletics got some of the big GB wins such as Hannah Cockcroft taking gold in the 800m.  Another event I did was the shooting. Not as action-packed as some of the events, but I did manage to get some interesting pictures.

The Closing Ceremony and a surprise from the Queen

The last event that TeamGB photography shot was the closing ceremony.  The goal was to get a picture of the Flag Bearer David Smith carrying the Union Jack for ParalympicsGB.  This led to one the biggest surprises for me of my trip to Japan. When we got to the airport the following morning, I found out that the image I took of David Smith had been used by the Queen across all her social media channels.  I was truly shocked, what an honour and a great way to finish my adventure in Japan.

This trip was definately one of the highlights of my sports photography career, being an olympic photographer especially at the paralympics is so special.  Capturing these amazing athletes competing at the highest levels is such a privelege.

Take a look at my video of all my Paralympics2020 highlights https://vimeo.com/manage/videos/633687844

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