SAN DIEGO, August 30, 2012 – The cauldron flame is once again burning brightly at Olympic Stadium in London, brought to life for the 16th annual Paralympic Games on Wednesday with a thrilling Opening Ceremony full of wonder.
Film director Stephen Daldry wove the theme of “Enlightenment” around the groundbreaking discoveries of science by figures from Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, from the humble umbrella to the Big Bang theory, and the role science has played in creating the modern era of inclusion and diversity by expanding possibilities for all of humankind including those with disabilities. The production was deeply human, an extraordinary show of ability and pushing beyond personal limits.
It was indeed fitting that the first words the spectators heard came from the electronic voicebox of British physicist Stephen Hawking, who appeared center stage after a scene simulating the Big Bang. As Professor Hawking told the audience, “There should be no boundary to human endeavor.”
The creative team turned to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” for its narrators, the same as its counterpart did for the Olympic Games, a happy coincidence. Disabled young actress Nicola Miles-Wildin played the central character of Miranda, urged on by her father Prospero as played by the brilliant British actor Sir Ian McKellen to explore the world and spread her wings.
McKellen says, “Will you be for all of us gathering here our eyes, our ears, and our hearts? Shine your light on the beautiful diversity of humanity? Understand those rights that protect us. Look up, stretch your wings, and fly? Will you take this journey for all of us? Will you set us free?”
For the Paralympics, the athletes enter the stadium before the main program starts. It took over an hour longer than anticipated, but the energy and excitement never wavered. Discus thrower Scott Danberg of Florida was flagbearer for Team USA; “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius led in the South African delegation. Many of the flag bearers had the flags attached to wheelchairs, or held them up with just a single arm. Many wheelchair athletes decorated their wheels with patriotic cover. Several service dogs accompanied athletes, which led one spectator to ask, “Do the dogs compete too?” (No, they don’t).
Lord Sebastian Coe welcomed all to the Games: “Prepared to be inspired, prepare to be dazzled, prepare to be moved by the Paralympic Games of London 2012.”
Queen Elizabeth, flanked by Princess Anne, Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, formally opened the Paralympic Games just as she did the Olympic Games. She arrived without a helicopter this time, but was just as warmly welcomed by the audience.
The audience heard musical performances from blind British soprano Denise Leigh, 16-year-old singer Birdy, and a rollicking version of British punk icon Ian Dury’s “Spasticus Autisticus” performed by British dance music duo Orbital with the Graeae Theatre Company, complete with samples from Hawking.
The ceremony featured 42 disabled performers including British military veterans who performed on aerial harnesses with umbrellas and props. The group trained for months to learn the circus skills for the show. Dancer David Toole, born without legs, dazzled the audience by dancing on his hands before flying around the stadium on a wire performing an aerial ballet.
Many of the performers were held aloft on harnesses, flying through the upper half of the stadium. But none flew higher than 24-year-old Joe Townsend, a Royal Marine Commando who lost both legs to a Taliban bomb in Afghanistan. He carried the Paralympic Torch into the stadium harnessed on a zipwire tethered to the top of the Olympic Park’s Orbit sculpture, dropping in from 115 meters (that’s 378 feet, or nearly the height of a 38 story building) over the top of the stadium to deliver the torch. Who needs James Bond when you have the real thing?
From there it was carried by 41-year-old David Clarke, captain of the British visually impaired five-a-side football team, who crossed the stadium and handed the torch to 84-year-old Margaret Maughan, Britain’s first Paralympic gold medal winner in Rome in 1960. Maughan spun her wheelchair to light the familiar cauldron, with one petal for each of the 164 competing nations in the Paralympic Games.
And no Ceremony of this scale would be complete without fireworks on a grand scale, and the Paralympics didn’t disappoint.
Now it’s time to get to the competition, which begins Thursday for many of the 4,200 disabled athletes competing in the Paralympic Games, including a delegate of 227 from the United States. Archery, cycling, equestrian, judo, powerlifting, shooting, swimming, and wheelchair basketball all get underway.
There is no live television coverage in the United States. There will be live coverage online at the Paralympics YouTube website along with summary reports aired daily, available on demand as they are produced.
Near the end of the formal ceremony, Sir Ian McKellen as Prospero encourages Miranda to fly upwards and smash through a glass ceiling. For the next 11 days, the thousands of Paralympians will smash barriers, smash records, and smash stereotypes, showing what they are able to accomplish through the common bond of sport we all share.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She writes on professional cycling and covers the Sweet Science for Communities, along with other news in the sports world. Read more Ringside Seat in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
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