Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games: Stories That Resonate

The entire Refugee Paralympic Team, including athletes, coaches and officials
PHOTO: International Olympic Committee/Lucas Freitas 

Communications expert and former CBC journalist, TEDDY KATZ, served as media attaché for the Refugee Paralympic Team during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Katz shares how preparation, creativity, flexibility and thinking like a journalist ensured the athletes’ stories caught the attention of the world’s media.
By Teddy Katz

In early 2021, when the International Paralympic Committee asked me to be the media attaché for the Refugee Paralympic Team, I was like a kid in a candy store. There was a ton of potential to share important stories that would give hope, especially to the more than 82 million displaced people forced to flee their homes around the world. But there were several challenges.


The challenges:
Some of the athletes had never done media interviews. As refugees, sometimes they can’t share every detail. We had language, cultural and logistical barriers, including difficulties communicating.

Laying the foundation:
I wrote the initial stories for the International Paralympic Committee’s website on all six athletes, focusing on details journalists would find most intriguing. That included the aha moments, biggest obstacles, turning points and relatable lessons.

Media outlets always need unique images. We partnered with Getty Images to do special photo shoots for us. This led to 60-second videos that went hand-in-hand with each story. We published these stories once a week starting in May, sharing links and photos with key media outlets we were targeting.

Key takeaway:
Many freelance journalists are available to hire as consultants to help you better understand how the media works and the types of stories that get widespread interest and attention.


Team effort:
To capture attention, even with the best stories, you need to think creatively. Surround yourself with a team that can think outside the box. Together, with a small but innovative communications team at the International Paralympic Committee, we worked closely with UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. They helped by providing goodwill ambassadors for our team reveal video. This led to the International Paralympic Committee’s most viewed video ever on Instagram.

Stories that resonate:
The UNHCR team connected us with rising Canadian soccer star Alphonso Davies, a refugee himself. He prepared a moving letter to “the world’s most courageous sports team” that went viral.

In addition, UNHCR Japan created a cultural exchange program with the athletes and residents of Bunkyo Ward in Tokyo. When COVID-19 interrupted plans for Bunkyo to be a host city for the team ahead of the Games, we moved all activities online.

Key takeaway:
Out of the box thinking and finding the human side of
the story pays huge dividends.


Every media outlet wants something unique. It could be one-on-one time with athletes or a special angle. In the lead up to the competitions, we offered media days with athletes and ensured major outlets knew about the opportunities. ESPN interviewed all six athletes. The New York Times interviewed swimmer Abbas Karimi and insisted on a special photo with him in Tokyo. This was a major challenge because the photographer could not access the warm-up pool where Karimi trained. We made special arrangements with the venue manager to let the photographer access the main pool deck during a lull in the action, for a picture worth a thousand words: it earned over 122,000 likes on the The New York Times Instagram page.

Key takeaway:
When building relationships with media, it’s important to ask journalists and photographers how to make the story appealing to their audiences.

Refugee Paralympic Team at the opening ceremony. PHOTO: OIS/Joel Marklund

Performers at the closing ceremony. PHOTO: OIS/Thomas Lovelock

Refugee Paralympic Team Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games

Anas Al Khalifa, Canoe (Syrian refugee)
Ibrahim Al Hussein, Swimming (Syrian refugee)
Parfait Hakizimana, Taekwondo (Burundian refugee)
Alia Issa, Athletics (Syrian refugee)
Abbas Karimi, Swimming (Afghan refugee)
Shahrad Nasajpour, Athletics (Iranian refugee)


Swimmer Abbas Karimi is an Afghan refugee and we facilitated many media interviews with high-profile outlets in the weeks leading up to the Games. In August, when the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan coincided with the Games, Karimi was in even more demand from the international media. But he needed to focus on his competitions and, most importantly, his mental wellness given the immense stress he was feeling because of what was happening back home. He opted out of attending the team news conference the day before the opening ceremony.

We thought his absence might make the news conference less appealing to the media, so we asked the other athletes to share personal anecdotes from their time in Tokyo. In one example, swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein told us a Japanese ex-journalist and friend, who also happens to speak Arabic, had greeted him at the airport with an exquisite scrapbook. We invited her to translate for him at the news conference. Ibrahim brought the scrapbook, and the media loved it.

Other examples:
Our virtual host city, Bunkyo Ward, presented the team with a great visual—3,000 paper airplanes bearing good luck messages from the kids and seniors who live there. It was another huge hit. We also shared with the media a touching story of how the two swimmers on the team talked all day together even though there was no common language between them. Ibrahim provided a perfect sound bite when he said the team is like family, and when you are family you don’t need words to communicate. By the end of the conference, Tokyo 2020 organizers clapped and wiped away tears saying it was the best news conference of the Games.

Key takeaway:
Be prepared with a plan B. Look for personal stories and unique angles that touch people’s emotions.

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