RIO DE JANEIRO — The Paralympic Games opened on Wednesday (Thursday morning, Singapore time) with 4,350 athletes demonstrating first-hand their creed: “The heart knows no limits; everybody has a heart.”
Wheelchair daredevil Aaron Wheelz showed the spirit in the opening act at the legendary Maracana Stadium.
As a countdown from 10 reached its end, Wheelz raced down a giant ramp and somersaulted in the air through a giant 0 on the stadium floor. That finished the countdown and shattered more stereotypes about what athletes with disabilities can do.
International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Philip Craven made a similar point with his speech. Craven, who lost the use of his legs in a rock-climbing fall at the age of 16, reminded Brazilians they have their own problems to overcome and suggested that they follow the lead of Paralympians.
“In a country which has faced major challenges of late, Paralympians will switch your focus from perceived limitations — to a world full of possibility and endless opportunity,” Craven said. “They will surprise you, inspire and excite you, but most of all they will change you.”
Brazil is mired in its worst recession in generations. The country just removed its elected president, and these Games needed a government bailout of almost US$80 million (S$107.7 million) to make it to the starting line.
Craven also used the theme of “inclusion”, topical in a country often separated by the rich and poor, and black and white; a country with few provisions for wheelchairs or anyone with an impairment.
“Show the world that there is no them, there is only us,” Craven told the cheering capacity crowd at the opener.
“A world where people of all abilities, races, nationalities and sexualities can come together as one. We are all part of one world.”
The symbolic cauldron was lit by Brazilian swimmer and wheelchair user Clodoaldo Silva as rain fell.
The six-time gold medalist faced a flight of stairs and looked perplexed about what to do next. The staircase then opened, exposing a ramp leading to the cauldron. Problem solved.
Silva received the torch after a number of athletes carried it in the stadium. Among them was former Brazilian Paralympic medalist Marcia Malsar, who wobbled and fell over backward as she carried the torch across floor with aid of a cane. Malsar got back up, with some assistance, and finished her roughly 30m section of the relay in an effort warmly acknowledged by the crowd.
The show featured a tribute to the wheel, to Brazil’s swirling samba rhythms, and to the beach — a ritual gathering spot in Rio. And there was the cast applauding an imaginary sunset, another ritual in this beach town.
The show also saluted Brazilian swimmer Daniel Dias, the country’s most decorated Paralympian with 10 gold medals — and surely more to come in Rio.
Organisers say tickets sales have been booming. Only 200,000 were sold a few weeks ago, but they have now sold 1.6 million. The goal is 2.4 million. This is partly a result of the reasonable prices for many tickets — only 10 Brazilian reals (S$4.20).
But there were also moments of tension during the show.
As newly sworn-in President Michel Temer appeared at the ceremony just days after taking over from bitter rival Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached, he was jeered by fans chanting “Fora Temer” — Out Temer.
Temer’s hurried declaration of “I declare the Games open” met a roar of boos, while booing forced Brazilian Olympics boss Carlos Nuzman to pause his speech after he mentioned “thanks to the federal, state and municipal governments”.
A notable absentee was International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach. The IOC chief said he had to miss the ceremony to attend a state mourning ceremony in Germany for Walter Scheel, the former West Germany president.
Craven told reporters it is the first time since Salt Lake City in 2002 that an IOC president had missed a Paralympic opening but stopped short of giving any reasons why.
“Whether there’s anything else — I don’t know if there’s anything else,” he said.
However, there have been suggestions that the no-show has to do with divisions over the Paralympic committee’s outright ban on Russian athletes after allegations of a state-sanctioned doping programme and the IOC’s relatively softer line.
There were also reports in Globo and other Brazilian media outlets that Bach is wanted for questioning by local police investigating an illegal ticket selling ring allegedly involving senior Olympic official Patrick Hickey.
The Irishman was among 10 people charged by Brazilian prosecutors on Tuesday with ticket scalping, conspiracy and ambush marketing related to last month’s Olympics.
Police investigators said they wanted to speak with Bach about email exchanges he had with Hickey related to ticket allocations for Ireland. The police had planned to “summon” Bach if he came for the opening ceremony, although there is no evidence he knew about the ticket scam.
Officials say 159 nations were entered on Wednesday. Six countries are sending athletes for the first time, and Syrian swimmer Ibrahim Al-Hussein, who lost a leg in an explosion in his nation’s civil war, and Iranian discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour make up a two-strong refugee team.
The record of 41 career gold medals won by blind American swimmer Trischa Zorn between 1980 and 2004 looks unbeatable, but the Paralympics will inevitably produce new stars.
Iran’s 28-year-old powerlifter Siamand Rahman, disabled since birth, is aiming to become the first Paralympian to bench press 300kg. Others to watch include Britain’s wheelchair racer David Weir and China’s blind sprinter Liu Cuiqing.
China will have its biggest ever team of 308 athletes in Rio looking to beat their 95 gold medals from London when they topped the table for the third straight Paralympics.
They have swimmer Xu Qing competing in his fourth and possibly last Games, seeking to add to his seven gold medals. AGENCIES