'Mob' mentality pays off at Tokyo Games

Australian Paralympic chef de mission Kate McLoughlin is proud of the team's special camaraderie.
Australian Paralympic chef de mission Kate McLoughlin is proud of the team's special camaraderie.

The plan hatched at a suburban Melbourne coffee shop before Rio five years ago paid massive dividends for the Australian Paralympic team in Tokyo.

Rather than separate sports squads thrown together in the same uniform once every Paralympics, the Australians now belong to "The Mob".

It's a theme drawn from the Australian Indigenous concept of mob, or family, and team chef de mission Kate McLoughlin said it defined their Tokyo campaign.

McLoughlin, team co-captain Danni di Toro and TV commentator Tim Matthews brainstormed at the Brunswick cafe on how to create a genuine team spirit.

They then brought in Rio co-captain Kurt Fearnley and started to see some changes at the 2016 Games, but really saw the fruits of their labours over the last fortnight.

"We were thinking 'how can we make them feel like they're part of something bigger and it's not something where we just throw them all together once every four years and say love each other, be an Australian team?'," McLoughlin told AAP

"It genuinely feels like we've moved from that work in Rio really well and it's come to the fore during COVID, as well."

This was as much a team of characters such as cult figure Grant "Scooter" Patterson at the pool, or shot putter Todd Hodgetts ripping off his singlet, or cyclist Stuart Jones urging on a South African competitor, as it was about medals.

In strict performance terms, Australia did not quite reach expectations.

Madi de Rozario's gold and the silver to Jaryd Clifford on Sunday in the marathons brought the team total to 21 gold, 29 silver and 30 bronze.

That's one less gold than Rio and one less overall than the unofficial team prediction, while Australia also dropped from fifth to eighth on the medal table.

"How wonderful that it is so difficult to win a Paralympic gold medal," McLoughlin said.

"The value of them has increased exponentially."

The federal government certainly recognises that value, bowing to public pressure during the Games and announcing funding for all Australian Paralympic medals.

The scheme will match the Australian Olympic Committtee funding - $20,000 for a gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze.

But the table tennis team broke a 37-year gold medal drought and the cycling team also exceeded expectations.

There was also a sense in Tokyo that the Paralympians are being respected more as athletes in their own right.

"I feel it's a tipping point and it feels so good for the athletes," McLoughlin said.

"Quite often people would say 'it's just good they got there'.

"Those guys don't get out of bed every morning just to get there, they go (to the Games) to win.

"They are elite athletes in every sense of the word."

Asked to nominate a Games highlight, McLoughlin was rapt that Dan Michel broke Australia's 25-year medal drought in boccia with his bronze.

Her heartbreak was seeing Lauren Parker beaten for gold in triathlon by just .01 of a second.

But the pandemic meant McLoughlin's strongest emotion was just joy that the Games happened at all.

She said greeting the first group of athletes in Tokyo was "a beautiful moment".

"It was really emotional - 12 months ago, six months ago, three months ago, we were debating would this actually happen," she said.

"We were arguably walking into a more dangerous situation in Japan (than the Olympics) - the (Covid) cases had risen significantly.

"It was a character-building campaign."

Australian Associated Press