by Mariya Abedi
RIO DE JANEIRO – Let the games begin! The 2016 Paralympic games kicked off at Maracanã Stadium with a spectacle of fireworks, stunts and Brazilian music and dancing.
Extreme wheelchair athlete Aaron “Wheelz”Fotheringham set the mood as he barreled down a 6-story high MegaRamp in a wheelchair and somersaulted through a ring of fireworks, showing that people with disabilities are capable of anything. A human kaleidoscope, a massive beach scene and wheelchair parade made use of the projection system Brazil invested in for the Olympics and Paralympics.
As with the Olympics, the Opening Ceremony showcased Brazilian culture, and the crowd loved every minute of it. Samba music connected different portions of the program together and kept the party going for the fans in the arena.
But the party had started in the arena long before the program began; people took part in crowd waves around the stadium and their enthusiasm and passion permeated the arena in spite of news headlines dominated by the country’s economy, doping scandal and Paralympic budget concerns. While ticket sales to the Paralympic Games have been lagging compared to previous games, the 78,000-seat arena was close to full as athletes began their parade around the stage.
This year’s games brought 159 nations together with more than 4,300 athletes competing, including two refugee athletes from Syria and Iran. As the delegations entered the arena, each country was preceded by a jigsaw puzzle piece, which then formed a human heart on the stage– emphasizing the night’s theme of inclusion and the passionate spirit of the Paralympics.
The president of the International Paralympic Committee, Philip Craven, touched on those same notes in his opening speech, calling for Brazil to overcome its hurdles.
“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,” he said. “Show the world that there is no ‘them’, there is only ‘us’. A world where people of all abilities, races, nationalities and sexualities can come together as one.”
While the athletes were the main focus of the night, the night was not without its share of political protests. The crowds jeered Brazil President Michel Temer as he officially announced the opening of the Paralympic Games. Protesters circled the arena shouting “Temer out” as guards watched from a distance.
And though Russia was noticeably absent due to a ban for state-sponsored doping, a non-athlete member of the Belarus delegation carried in their neighbor’s flag as a show of solidarity. The flag was confiscated at the ceremony, and in a statement, the International Paralympic Committee said they banned the individual from the Paralympics.
But the crowd was unfazed by the distraction. They continued to cheer on the athletes, one delegation after another. And when former Brazilian Paralympian Marcia Malsar fell but then got back up while carrying the Paralympic flame around the stage, fans throughout the stadium erupted in a standing ovation.
Paralympian Amy Purdy took to the stage in a 5-minute dance-off with a KUKA robot, highlighting the role of technology in the Paralympics. The Sochi bronze medalist glided across the floor, dancing to a Samba-inspired number. Purdy switched between two sets of prosthetics and even wore a dress made using a 3D printer.
“Showing the world the possibilities of Paralympic athletes and just how interesting and cool our situations can be, is a huge part of this dance and why we’re doing it in the Opening Ceremony,” Purdy said. “It combines the whole idea of the Paralympics: human spirit and technology. That’s what this whole dance does; it works together.”
And judging by the loud applause at the end, the crowd agreed.