'Enlightenment' gala opens London Paralympics

"Enlightenment" was the theme, physicist Stephen Hawking the guide and Olympic Stadium the venue Wednesday night as London welcomed 4,200 athletes from more than 160 nations to the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Canada's delegation parades during the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday. (Ian Kington/AFP/GettyImages)

Volleys of fireworks lit up the night sky, Beverley Knight belted out "I am what I am," and Britain's first Paralympic gold medallist lit the cauldron to open the 2012 London Paralympic Games.

It was a night of empowerment for the disabled worldwide. "Enlightenment" was the theme, physicist Stephen Hawking the guide and Olympic Stadium the venue Wednesday as the British capital welcomed 4,200 athletes from more than 160 nations.

Who better to greet Paralympians than a scientist who has shown the world that physical disabilities do not limit human potential?

"The Paralympic Games is about transforming our perception of the world. We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit," said Hawking, who was given two years to live in 1963 after he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease.

"What is important is that we have the ability to create ... however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at," he added.

The extravaganza, directed by Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, was billed as a voyage across "a sea of ideas," including Isaac Newton's discovery of gravity, which all Earth-bound athletes strive against. The show included 73 deaf and disabled professional performers and 68 disabled people among its 3,250 volunteers.

The gala opened with a look at the Big Bang — considered the beginning of the universe — as a glowing sphere turned the stadium into a giant nebula.  

In a nod to the famously erratic British weather, umbrellas were a central theme. Seeing performers with no legs beneath the knee doing aerial flips carrying umbrellas could inspire the most ardent couch potato.

Big welcome home

Sebastian Coe, chief of the London organizing committee, issued a big welcome home "to a movement that shows what sport is all about."

"Sport is about what you can do, what you can achieve, the limits you can reach, the barriers you can break. Sport shows what is possible. Sport refuses to take no for an answer," Coe told the audience of 60,000.

The London event is on track to be the most-watched Paralympics ever, with 2.5 million tickets expected to be sold by the time it ends Sept. 9.

As the athletes paraded in under a full moon, a huge roar filled the stadium for South African flagbearer Oscar Pistorius, the sprinter who is making history by running in both the Olympics and the Paralympics this year. Glittery ticker tape and a standing ovation then greeted the enormous British team as they entered to the David Bowie song "Heroes."

The parade took nearly an hour longer than expected, with athletes arriving in dozens of ways. Some came in motorized carts, others wheeled themselves in, still others were pushed by coaches or volunteers. They walked in with canes or crutches, eye patches and sunglasses, prosthetic limbs and walking sticks, determined to make it around the imposing stadium, welcomed by a global music mash-up by local DJs.

Led by flag bearer Garett Hickling, some 85 Canadian athletes marched in after Cameroon and ahead of Cape Verde.

Hicking, a 41-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., will represent Canada in wheelchair rugby at a fifth Paralympic Games. Canada has 145 athletes seeking medals in 15 of the 20 Paralympic sports.

"It was just awesome," he said. "I had never felt like that before. Walking in with all the players behind me, I smiled knowing that my family was there. It was unbelievable."

"Amazing. I feel so proud. It's very special to be here," added goalball player Ahmed Zeividavi. "The moment we walked in the stadium is something I'll never forget."

The team's objective is a top-eight finish in gold medals won. Canada was seventh four years ago in Beijing with 19 gold.

'Spirit in Motion'

Blind soprano Denise Leigh then sang the tribute song "Spirit in Motion" and several Paralympians took flight in an elegant aerial display.

And of course, this being Britain, the words of Shakespeare once again made an appearance, with both Miranda of "The Tempest" and British actor Ian McKellen announcing that "the greatest adventure is what lies ahead."

That, over the next 11 days, includes Paralympic athletes competing in 20 sports, including archery, cycling, rowing, equestrian, sailing, sitting volleyball, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair tennis and wheelchair basketball.

At the start, Hawking directed the fictional Miranda to "be curious" — and the stadium was transformed into a giant blinking eye, with performers on huge waving sticks acting like eyelashes.

Along her travels, the curious Miranda was to navigate a maze to find an apple — and everyone in the stadium was encouraged to take a bite out of the fruit they were given with her.

Other performers included soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, Beverley Knight, the British dance group Flawless and six London-based choirs.

Outside the stadium, hundreds of performers cheered, sang and danced. Jason Kajdi, an 18-year-old from south London, did huge splits with bouncy legs that resembled the "Cheetah" prosthetic limbs worn by Pistorius.

"Never used these before this," Kajdi admitted. "They are brilliant fun but hard work."

Authorities, meanwhile, promised to provide "a grand and global stage" for a games that everyone will remember.

Queen Elizabeth II formally opened the games, saying the nation looked forward to "celebrating the uplifting spirit which distinguishes the Paralympic Games from other events." She was accompanied by her grandson, Prince William, his wife Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Prime Minister David Cameron.

The Paralympic movement tracks its beginnings to the vision of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, who in 1948 organized an archery competition for 16 injured patients at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Britain.

Wednesday's ceremony concluded with a bevy of fireworks and Miranda breaking a glass ceiling — just as Paralympians must smash through their own barriers.

Society, too, was encouraged to abandon old-fashioned perceptions of what disabled people can and cannot do.

"The Paralympic Games have inspired us to make London a more inclusive and welcoming city, to shift perceptions of disability and break down barriers in society," London Mayor Boris Johnson said.