The Tokyo Paralympic Games took flight with an allegorical aeroplane-themed opening ceremony packed with strong messages of inclusivity and hope for the world’s disabled population.
Japan’s Emperor Naruhito and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were among those present for a landmark moment organisers and many athletes feared may never happen.
The long-awaited event took place precisely 364 days later than planned and around 17 months since being postponed due to coronavirus.
Ellie Simmonds and John Stubbs led out Great Britain’s delegation as flagbearers, smiling behind their masks as they waved for the cameras.
Yet it was 13-year-old wheelchair user Yui Wago who stole the show, producing a symbolic performance as ‘The Little One-Winged Plane’ who does not believe she can fly before finally taking off.
Addressing the gathered athletes ahead of 12 days of action, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Andrew Parsons called for an end to discrimination.
“If the world has ever labelled you, now is your time to be relabelled: champion, hero, friend, colleague, role model or just human,” he said.
“You are the best of humanity and the only ones who can decide who and what you are.
“The Paralympic Games are for sure a platform for change but every four years is not enough.
“It is up to each and every one of us to play our part every day to make for a more inclusive society, in our countries, in our cities, in our communities.
“Difference is a strength, it is not a weakness and as we build back better, the post-pandemic world must feature societies where opportunities exist for all.
“Many doubted this day would happen, many thought it impossible, but thanks to the efforts of many the most transformative event on earth is about to begin.”
‘We Have Wings’ was the concept of the lengthy ceremony, a message which was emblazoned on the floor of an almost-empty Olympic Stadium which had been transformed into a ‘Para Airport’.
Selected dignitaries, volunteers and members of the media were the extent of the scant audience, a stark reminder of the ongoing pandemic and rising cases of Covid-19 in the host country which have cast a shadow over the Games.
Giant propellers and balloons surrounded the outer stage, forming the Paralympic Agitos, while 100 ‘crew members’ waved scarves in the colours of the symbol – red, green and blue – followed by a fireworks display.
Swimmer Simmonds and archer Stubbs were preceded by a poignant moment as the six-strong Refugee Paralympic Team (RPT) entered first.
Afghanistan-born swimmer Abbas Karimi, who was born without arms, and club throw athlete Alia Issa – a Syrian refugee and the team’s first female member – carried their flag, beginning a procession of competitors from across the world.
As the ‘Parade of Nations’ uses the alphabet of the home nation, Iceland – ‘Aisurando’ in Japanese – were second out, followed by Ireland – ‘Airurando’.
Notable absentees were New Zealand and Afghanistan.
The Kiwi contingent opted to send a sole representative as flagbearer due to Covid-19 fears, while the Afghan flag was flown by the IPC as a sign of solidarity after athletes from there were denied a chance to perform by the uncertainty caused by the recent Taliban takeover.
A total of 162 delegations, three more than Rio 2016, are poised take part in the Games, with five countries – Bhutan, Grenada, Maldives, Paraguay and St Vincent and the Grenadines – making debuts.
Japan’s team, the largest with 260 members, entered last, prompting a relative roar from the few fortunate to be in attendance.
Tokyo is making history as the first city to host the summer Paralympic Games for a second time, having also done so in 1964.
Tokyo 2020 president Hashimoto Seiko echoed the comments of IPC president Parsons in her opening speech.
“We hope the Games will be an opportunity to build a society where everyone is free to live as who they are in mutual support and understanding, free from discrimination or barriers of any kind,” she said.
“Athletes and sport have the power to change the world and our future – and that is precisely our mission. Half a century after the 1964 Games, the time has come for social change.”
The lighting of the Paralympic Cauldron by three wheelchair-bound medical professionals – Taro Nakamura, Tamami Tamura and Famio Usui – provided a fitting end to an immensely challenging build-up, with seven of the 22 Paralympic sports set to feature when the action gets under way on Wednesday.
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