Dame Sarah Storey becomes Britain's most successful Paralympian - but golden moment leaves sour taste

Team-mate and silver medallist Crystal Lane-Wright said she would 'not attempt' to take the gold off Storey during the race - REUTERS
Team-mate and silver medallist Crystal Lane-Wright said she would 'not attempt' to take the gold off Storey during the race - REUTERS

Did Dame Sarah Storey plot her own path to British sporting greatness, or was she gifted it? This was the question that hung heavily in the stubborn fog enveloping the foothills of Mount Fuji, as she seized the 17th gold that confirmed her as the country’s most prolific Paralympic champion. In her eighth Games at the age of 43, she finally stands alone. But this was a victory framed by the extraordinary final-lap decision by compatriot Crystal Lane-Wright, the perennial bridesmaid in their battles together, to let her take the glory unchallenged.

Even though she had galvanised the chase of the early leader, Germany’s Kerstin Brachtendorf, Lane-Wright held a long conversation with Storey in the closing stages, agreeing that she would simply allow the defending champion to surge away for the win. “Crystal was saying, ‘Get me up the climb, I need to get the silver medal,’” Storey explained. “And then I just went full gas into the finish. We didn’t have a conversation about how the race would go, but once we were in that mood, she was able to tell me that I was just going to take it at the finish.”

It did not say much, in truth, for the depth of competition that Storey has faced during this era. In recent years, Lane-Wright has been the closest challenger to the grande dame of Paralympic cycling, but here, under drenching rain, she was content to hand her team-mate this record-breaking title on a platter. “There is a hierarchy,” Lane-Wright argued. “I said, ‘This is your gold medal – you don’t have to worry, I won’t even attempt to take it away from you.’”

Even as she said it, Lane-Wright appeared to recognise just what a surprising admission this was. “It is probably not the most athletic, competitive thing to do,” she acknowledged. “She hit it so hard at the bottom of the last climb, I wasn’t quick enough. I was already completely spent. There was an element of tiredness.”

Rarely on her midwinter training rides in the Peak District can Storey have encountered conditions as bleak as those that swept through this mystical Japanese landscape. But with her eyes fixed on this road race prize, she refused to relent.

Storey has now won all 13 bike events entered dating back to her Games debut on two wheels in Beijing in 2008 - PA
Storey has now won all 13 bike events entered dating back to her Games debut on two wheels in Beijing in 2008 - PA

Since she made the switch from swimming to cycling at Beijing 2008, Storey has won every Paralympic event she has entered. Such is her dominance, many of her victories look almost scripted in advance. This latest addition to her collection was anything but, as the treacherous Fuji roads reminded her that the tiniest mistake would send her sprawling in the sopping mist. And yet the smaller the margin of error, the bolder she becomes. “I know that I can go around corners as quickly in the wet as I can in the dry,” she smiled. “It was great fun not touching your brakes when you went through corners.”

It is this attitude that renders her almost unassailable. Brachtendorf tried gamely to change the record, surging into the distance to leave Storey an unbridgeable gap, but she was soon drawn back. When the duel was drawn between the British duo on the final lap, Storey saw that her team-mate had nothing left to give, dashing to the finish and establishing herself as the nation’s premier Paralympian.

The 16 golds amassed by swimmer Mike Kenny during the 1970s had long been the standard for Storey to chase. But his was an era unrecognisable to hers, when the Paralympics were still a ramshackle experiment and when attitudes to disability were far less enlightened. Storey, born without a functional left hand after her arm was ensnared in the umbilical cord in the womb, has delivered her triumphs against deeper fields and under heavier pressure.

Not that the expectations of title No 17 clouded her judgment here. “I’ve never felt the pressure to be overwhelming before a race,” Storey said. “It’s the sweetest feeling to know that I go back to my room and there are a couple of gold medals in the safe to put this one with. That makes the tally very real.”

On an extraordinary morning, there was also a British one-two in the men's C1-3 event, with Benjamin Watson taking gold in 2:04:23, a minute and and 20 seconds ahead of compatriot Fin Graham.

Comment: Final-lap deal-making an unsatisfying sidenote to defining achievement

After five years of being outshone by the alpha female of Paralympic cycling, Crystal Lane-Wright finally had her chance to annexe the throne. At 35, a 49-mile road race on the sopping-wet slopes of Mount Fuji represented her final tilt at converting her customary silver into gold. So what did she do? She turned across to Dame Sarah Storey to offer a verbal guarantee that the title, once again, was hers. Clearly, she had intended for this to be construed as a gesture of noble deference towards a great champion. Instead, it felt like the tamest cop-out.

The expectation was that compatriots vying for global medals would give no quarter, and yet Lane-Wright looked and sounded in awe of Storey, handing her a record 17th gold without even a trace of resistance. “I think Sarah is the greatest,” she said. “She is part of history now.” Perhaps so, but she did not need to offer the queen bee quite such a helping hand en route.

In Paralympic sport, we need to believe, for all the fortitude of the athletes, that we are watching competition where winning still resonates. While it is true that the stories around the Games matter as much as the sport, the event can sometimes be weighted down by its own earnestness, by a fixation on the human spirit to the exclusion of all else. But as Clare Balding said when she joined Channel Four’s pioneering coverage of London 2012: “You don’t want to make it too worthy.”

Lane-Wright’s gesture to Storey seemed a throwback, designed to be celebrated for its magnificent camaraderie. As she put it: “I have the utmost respect for Sarah. I said to her: ‘It’s your gold. I would hate for something to happen.’” It should be noted at this point that Storey was always the likely victor here, a woman unbeaten in every Paralympic cycling discipline she had contested. But her nearest pursuer, having done admirably to keep pace in weather of biblical awfulness, was under no obligation to roll out the red carpet so readily at the end.

This piece of final-lap deal-making redounded to neither woman’s benefit. Lane-Wright resigned herself to a third consecutive silver, when she should have been chasing gold, while Storey did little to shake a long-standing perception that she wins too easily. Ultimately, the cosy arrangement between the pair cast no shadow over Storey’s magnificent body of work. But a rival’s surrender was an unsatisfying way in which to conclude her defining achievement.

Elsewhere overnight

Clegg finishes individual Paralympic career amid Cape Verde marriage proposal

by Molly McElwee

Two-time Paralympic champion Libby Clegg drew a line under her individual sprinting career by failing to progress from her 200m heat, but there was a happy ending for a fellow competitor who received a marriage proposal on the finish line.

Paralympic debutant Keula Nidreia Pereira Semedo of Cape Verde finished the T11 race - for athletes with visual impairments - in last place with a season's best, but little did she know her day was about to get better. Her guide Manuel Antonio Vaz da Veiga got down on one knee and popped the question, much to the shock and delight of Pereira Semedo who said yes as her fellow competitors gathered to cheer and congratulate them.

It was a touching moment, at the end of a race which marked four-time Paralympian Clegg's final individual competition in Paralympic athletics. Clegg, who was running with guide Chris Clarke, had said Tokyo 2020 would be her last Games in the sport and her time of 27.93 meant she failed to progress to the 200m semi-final.

"To finish my career in the Paralympic stadium in Tokyo is amazing," an upbeat Clegg said. "I wasn’t even sure I was going to be here so I’m happy. I’ve still got the relay to come tomorrow which I’m really looking forward to, so I’m ready for that one. It has been such an honour to be on such a successful team."

Since her double-gold in Rio, Clegg gave birth to her first child in 2019 and competed in Dancing on Ice in 2020. She has spoken about the challenges the pandemic brought to her training as a visually impaired athlete, as she was not allowed physical contact with her coaches or her guide during training sessions.

"For me, this Games is a year too late," Clegg said on Thursday. "I was ready for it last year, I was in phenomenal shape. It’s been a really tough 18 months for all athletes; it’s hard but it is what it is."

Clegg competes for the British 4x100m universal relay on Friday. Meanwhile team-mate Anna Nicholson came sixth in the F35 shot put with a season's best throw of 8.03m.

Wednesday's silver medallist Sammi Kinghorn progressed to the T53 400m final on Thursday night after she comfortably won her heat.

Afghan Paralympian makes debut after top-secret evacuation
Zakia Khudadadi became only the second woman to compete for Afghanistan at the Paralympics - AFP
Zakia Khudadadi became only the second woman to compete for Afghanistan at the Paralympics - AFP

Afghan taekwondo athlete Zakia Khudadadi became the first female Afghan to compete in the Paralympic Games since Athens 2004, after a secret international effort to help her get out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The 22-year-old and her compatriot Hossain Rasouli arrived in Tokyo on Saturday via Paris after Khudadadi made a video appeal for help to leave Kabul after the Taliban swept to power.

On Thursday, Khudadadi entered the Makuhari Messe competition arena in Chiba, near Tokyo, wearing a white hijab for the opening match of the debut of the Korean combat sport at the Paralympic Games. She became only the second woman to compete for Afghanistan at the Paralympics, which began in 1960.

"I'm happy that she was able to come to Japan," Kyodo News quoted Uzbekistan's Ziyodakhon Isakova as saying after her 17-12 defeat of Khudadadi in the under-49kg category.

Khudadadi, who will compete in the repechage round later on Thursday, did not speak to reporters. Both she and Rasouli had expressed a desire not to speak to media. Track athlete Rasouli competed in the long jump on Tuesday.

Alison Battisson of Human Rights for All, who was involved in their evacuation, told Reuters Australia had granted them humanitarian visas. It was not immediately known what the athletes intend to do after the Games.

In her Aug. 17 video appeal, Khudadadi had said: "I don't want my struggle to be in vain and without any results."

The pair had been unable to travel as originally scheduled after thousands of people rushed to Kabul's airport, seeking to flee the country.

Given the chaos, Paralympic officials had initially said they would not make it to the Games.

The Taliban have said they would respect the rights of women allowing them to work and study "within the framework of Islam" but many Afghans are sceptical of the promise.

During their 1996-2001 rule, also guided by sharia Islamic law, the Taliban stopped women from working. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women had to wear all-enveloping burqas to go out and then only when accompanied by a male relative.

By Reuters