'Transformative' Tokyo 2020 Paralympics underway after inspirational opening ceremony

Following a year of delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Paralympics officially began at the empty National Stadium in Tokyo as the city remains under a state of emergency.

Para judoka Priscilla Gagné leads Team Canada into National Stadium as flag-bearer

Following a year of delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Paralympics officially began at the empty National Stadium in Tokyo as the city remains under a state of emergency.

One hundred and sixty-two flags, beginning with the Refugee Paralympic Team and concluding with Japan, were represented in the parade of athletes.

Live coverage hosted by Scott Russell and decorated wheelchair racer Sen. Chantal Petitclerc began at 6 a.m. ET on the CBC TV network, CBC Gem, the CBC Sports app and CBC Sports website

The ceremony began at 7 a.m. ET., with a prime-time broadcast airing later Tuesday at 7 p.m. local time.

CBC TV coverage is presented with closed captioning and described video, and streaming will include American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation.

Among the few on hand were Douglas Emhoff, husband of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, International Paralympic Committee President Andrew Parsons and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.

Japanese Emperor Naruhito kicked off the festivities against the backdrop theme "We Have Wings."

"I cannot believe we are finally here," Parsons said in his opening remarks. "Many doubted this day would happen. Many thought it impossible. But thanks to the efforts of many, the most transformative sport event on earth is about to begin."

Priscilla Gagné led Canadian athletes into the stadium after being announced as the country's flag-bearer over the weekend. The Para judo medal contender, who has retinitis pigmentosa, a visual impairment, is competing in her second Paralympic Games.

WATCH | Priscilla Gagné leads Canadian delegation in parade of athletes:

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"It is incredibly honouring and humbling. It's exciting, it's many feelings in one," Gagné told CBC Sports ahead of carrying the flag at the ceremony. "It's nostalgic, it's such a gift, not something taken lightly."

The 35-year-old from Sarnia, Ont., now based in Montreal, is among 128 Canadians, including guides, who are in Tokyo to compete in 18 different sports.

"It's kind of like that old [Joni Mitchell] song 'Big Yellow Taxi.' Don't know what you got 'til it's gone," said Gagné, expressing her relief that the Games have commenced following a trying delay caused by the pandemic.

Stephanie Dixon, Canada's chef de mission, echoed Gagné sentiments.

"We all took a sigh of relief," Dixon said. "It was so great to see the COVID measures working at the Olympics, our Canadian delegation performing so well, and getting home safely. It boosted the confidence for all of us."

WATCH | Cauldron is lit to officially open Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games:

The ceremony opened with a performance titled "Para Airport," which tells the story of a one-winged plane that has given up flying. But, inspired by the flight of other aircraft, the protagonist begins to feel the presence of her own ability to fly. The conclusion of the performance is expected to come following the parade of nations.

The international athlete walk-outs began with the six-member Refugee Paralympic Team.

Two athletes from Afghanistan were slated to compete — para-taekwondo athlete Zakia Khudadadi and discus thrower Hossain Rasouli — but were unable to leave for Tokyo after the Taliban recently swept through and took over the country. Despite their absence, the country's flag was displayed during the opening ceremony.

The aerobatics team of the Japan Air Self-Defence Force, Blue Impulse, flew across the sky in Tokyo ahead of the opening ceremony on Tuesday, leaving behind trails of red, blue and green — the colours of the Paralympic symbol.

Tokyo and Paralympic organizers are under pressure from soaring new COVID-19 infections in the capital. About 40 per cent of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated, but daily new cases in Tokyo have increased four to five times since the Olympics opened on July 23. Tokyo is under a state of emergency until Sept. 12.

Organizers on Tuesday announced the first positive test for an athlete living in the Paralympic Village. They gave no name or details and said the athlete had been isolated.

WATCH | Variety of performances highlight unique opening ceremony:

A record 4,403 athletes will compete at the Games. When the competition kicks off, some countries — including Bhutan, Guyana, Maldives, Paraguay and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines — will be following the journeys of their first-ever Paralympians.

Rio 2016 held the previous record for most athletes, with 4,328.

This year also marks the first time the Paralympics will be aired on prime-time coverage in Canada by CBC. 

Among the delegations at the Games, not all were represented at the ceremony. Paralympics New Zealand said in a statement on its website that the team wouldn't be attending.

Paula Tesoriero, the New Zealand chef de mission, acknowledged that some may be "disappointed" that the country wouldn't be attending. She cited rising case counts in Japan and noted that the athletes would normally be operating in bubbles.

"The exposure of team members to large groups of people from many nations is not aligned with our commitment to our COVID-19 protocols and operating procedures aimed at keeping our team as safe as possible particularly in light of the growing number of cases in Tokyo," she said.

WATCH | Canadian Paralympians to watch at Tokyo 2020:

Parsons and Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the Tokyo organizing committee, say the Paralympics can be held safely. Both have tried to distance the Paralympics and Olympics from Tokyo's rising infection rate.

"For the moment, we don't see the correlation between having the Paralympics in Tokyo with the rising number of cases in Tokyo and Japan," Parsons told The Associated Press.

The Paralympics are scheduled to run through Sept. 5.

With files from Christine Rankin, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press

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