Paralympic Games begin

2008-09-07 11:40

Beijing - The Paralympic Games began on Sunday in Beijing, a day after China staged a lavish opening ceremony for an event it sees as another chance to cement its role as a global player to an international audience.

Thousands of cheerleaders and dancers in puffy, rainbow-coloured suits performed a dance routine in the centre of the field at the National Stadium on Saturday before athletes from 148 countries were introduced. The crowd cheered and waved flags as China's Communist Party leaders and foreign dignitaries looked on.

The guest list included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, German President Horst Koehler and South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo.

Earlier on Saturday, they shook hands and posed for photos with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's legislature in the heart of Beijing. Hu gave a brief speech and toasted the games.

Cause of the disabled

"Caring for the disabled is an important symbol for social civilisation and progress," Hu said before raising his glass.

"China's people and government have always attached great importance to the cause of the disabled," he said in remarks televised on state television. "We insist on putting people first, carrying forward a humanitarian spirit and advocating equality and opposing discrimination."

Opening just two weeks after the Beijing Olympics ended, the Paralympics are designed to be a parallel games for athletes with a wide range of physical disabilities.

Some 4 000-plus athletes will use many of the same Olympic venues over the next 10 days, with 148 countries represented and 472 medal events contested - 170 more than the Olympics.

Hosting the Olympics and the Paralympics is a source of national pride for China and a way to showcase the country on the international stage.

The August. 8-24 Olympics was overshadowed at times by human rights and censorship disputes surrounding the event. China is keen to use the Paralympics to underscore what it says it has done for the country's 83 million disabled citizens.

Liu Qi, the president of the Beijing Olympic organising committee, hailed the games as "a grand gathering for people with a disability from across the globe."

"It educates people to the power of love, and encourages people to devote more understanding, respect and support to people with a disability," Liu said at the opening ceremony.

Performances also included a song by a blind singer and dances by an 11-year-old ballet student who lost her left leg in China's massive May earthquake.

The athlete's parade was briefly disrupted when a woman walked onto the field of the stadium and tried to strip off her clothes, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Staff stopped the woman and later persuaded her to leave, the report said.

Xinhua said Beijing used much of its $100m budget for the Paralympics to improve handicapped facilities in competition venues, airports, the public traffic system, hotels, hospitals and tourist attractions like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

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