Thursday 21 November 2019

Paralympic Games spectacular starts with a 'big bang'

Fireworks during the opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium. Photo: PA
Fireworks during the opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium. Photo: PA
The Big Bang: the Paralympics opening ceremony starts with something close to Hawking's heart Photo: AP
Cyclist Cathal Miller leads the Irish team into the Olympic Stadium in London last night at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics
Physicist Stephen Hawking narrates the show
Artists perform during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics

Gordon Rayner

PROFESSOR Stephen Hawking took a rapt audience on a voyage of scientific discovery, from the Big Bang to the Large Hadron Collider, in a spectacular Paralympics opening ceremony exploring the theme of enlightenment.

Described by the organisers as "the most famous disabled person in the world", Prof Hawking narrated a three-hour show at London's Olympic Stadium that celebrated the power of science and of Paralympic sport to transform our perceptions of the possible.

Featuring everything from athletes 'flying' on golden wheelchairs to amputees performing gravity-defying acrobatics, it was a worthy sequel to Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony and refused to allow the performers' disabilities to restrict the breadth of its ambition.

In total, 141 disabled performers took part, including 27 wheelchair users.

Like Boyle's acclaimed show, it also drew from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' for inspiration, featuring actor Ian McKellen as a Prospero-like character and the disabled actress Nicola Miles-Wildin as Miranda.

Setting out the theme of the show, McKellen sent Miranda on her journey of discovery, asking her to "go out into the world ... be for all of us gathering here our eyes, our ears and our hearts" and "shine a light on the beautiful diversity of humanity".

A glowing, celestial sphere descended from the sky before a 'big bang' created with fireworks and 600 performers holding illuminated umbrellas -- a recurring prop throughout the evening.

Prof Hawking, speaking through his familiar voice synthesiser, urged Miranda to "look up at the stars and not down at your feet ... be curious".

Among the objects seen by her around the stadium were Isaac Newton's apple, a copy of the 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights' and a ball of energy representing the Higgs particle, all of which would recur later in the evening.

Torch

The opening segment also included a representation of present-day London, with a performance by the street dance troupe Flawless to the Rihanna song 'Umbrella', together with acrobats swaying on 13ft poles, some of whom were among 42 deaf and disabled people who went to a two-month circus school to prepare for the event.

A fanfare heralded the arrival of Queen Elizabeth, in rather more sedate circumstances than her 'parachute jump' at the Olympics opening ceremony.

Then it was time for the parade of the athletes from 166 countries, who entered the stadium to a mash-up of global music created by three London-based disc jockeys and a performance of the newly commissioned song 'Spirit In Motion' by Denise Leigh, the blind soprano who won the Channel 4 talent show 'Operatunity'.

As the clocked read 9.47pm, flagbearer Cathal Miller led the Irish team out to a rapturous reception.

The 39-year-old cyclist, from Artane, Dublin, followed in boxing hero Katie Taylor's footsteps by hoisting the Tricolour aloft. He had been elected as standard bearer by the 49-strong team.

Their joy and excitement were clear to see as they performed a lap of the Olympic Stadium, waving their mini-flags and soaking up the atmosphere.

They were welcomed by the strong Irish contingent in the capacity crowd, who continued the invasion of a month ago by making their presence felt with plenty of colour and noise.

Once the athletes were seated in the centre of the stadium, and following speeches from Sebastian Coe, chairman of the Games organisers Locog, and Philip Craven, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, the queen declared the Games open.

The Paralympics grew from the Stoke Mandeville Games, held at the Buckinghamshire hospital in 1948 by Ludwig Guttmann, a doctor who used the event to give a new challenge to servicemen who had suffered spinal injuries in the Second World War. Mr Coe said it was now time to "welcome home" the Games.

Perhaps the most breathtaking moment of the evening came when Royal Marine Commando Joe Townsend, an aspiring paralympian who lost both legs after treading on an explosive device in Afghanistan, was revealed holding the torch near the top of the 350ft-high ArcelorMittal Orbit tower outside the stadium, before descending on a zip wire to the base of the paralympic cauldron.

He handed the torch to David Clarke, one of Britain's visually-impaired football team, who passed it to the final torchbearer, Margaret Maughan. She was Britain's first gold medallist at the first Paralympic Games, which were held in Rome in 1960.

Once again Thomas Heatherwick's cauldron of petals, first seen during the Olympics, rose up from the ground to unite in a single flame.

As fireworks went off around the stadium, the singers Beverley Knight, Lizzie Emeh and Caroline Parker performed the finale, singing 'I Am What I Am' as the audience joined in with the lyrics, singing: "I am somebody, I am what I am."

Jim White

Irish Independent

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