Dazzling start to Paralympics

2008-09-06 15:24

Beijing - China once again dazzled the world with a glittering ceremony as the Paralympics opened on Saturday in the iconic "Bird's Nest" stadium with the message that all life has value and dignity.

Just weeks after billions around the globe enjoyed the breathtaking opening to the Olympics, Beijing was once again thrust centre stage.

In a nation in which the handicapped have long suffered discrimination, the event was themed "One World, One Dream" and "Transcendence, Integration, Equality."

The ceremony started at 14:00 SA time after a dramatic countdown. Fireworks rocked the stadium and lit up the night sky as the flag-waving crowd screamed and shouted in anticipation.

Among the dignitaries due to be attending was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after holding talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

More than 4 000 competitors from nearly 150 countries and regions will battle for 472 gold medals in 20 sports at the iconic venues used for last month's Olympics such as the "Bird's Nest" National Stadium and the Water Cube.

"There are more countries than ever, more sports than ever and more athletes than ever. This is great news for the Paralympic movement," said International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven.

"They're going to be tremendous sports events, an incredible opportunity for Paralympians to just show what they can do, how they can perform, how they are very much the equal of their Olympic peers."

The host nation, which topped the medals table at the 2004 Athens Paralympics with 63 golds ahead of Britain and Canada, is widely expected to dominate again - and even more comprehensively than at last month's Olympics.

Aside from China's seemingly inevitable domination of the Games, much attention will focus on South Africa's double amputee track sensation Oscar Pistorius - dubbed "Blade Runner" due to the specially adapted carbon fibre blades with which he has won a host of titles.

Carrying the flag at the opening ceremony for South Africa was Natalie du Toit, who finished 16th in the women's 10km marathon swim in the last month's Olympics.

Du Toit, who lost her lower left leg in a motor accident, won five golds and one silver in Athens, and is looking for another huge haul in Beijing.

The 20 sports at the 13th Paralympics, which ends on September 17, include athletics, swimming, powerlifting, wheelchair fencing and two versions of football - five-a-side and seven-a-side - as well as the lesser-known goalball and boccia.

China's motto for the Paralympics, comparing it with the Olympics, is: "Two Games with Equal Splendour."

Although China will pull out all the stops to produce a stunning event, the Paralympics takes place in a country in which the disabled have long suffered discrimination in social, education and employment sectors.

Authorities have made Beijing more friendly for disabled people by, for example, setting up the country's first fleet of easy-access taxis and making famous tourist spots such as the Great Wall accessible to wheelchairs.

And huge efforts have been made to show that China is treating the Paralympics with as much importance as the Olympics, including keeping anti-pollution measures in place.

Like the Olympics, the Paralympics have not been free of scandal and there will again be a focus in Beijing to stamp out any cheating.

But the IPC's Craven said he was looking forward to a clean Games.

"We have worked very hard over the last four years both from a testing point of view and also from an education point of view and we're very hopeful for good results," he said.

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