To the sound of samba, exploding fireworks and the cheers of tens of thousands of Brazilians inside the Maracana stadium Rio’s Paralympics finally opened on Wednesday evening before an estimated TV audience of one billion.
A Russian doping scandal and claims the athletes’ classification system is being manipulated has somewhat overshadowed the Games, as well as serious financial concerns and worries over ticket sales.
But less than three weeks after the flame went out on South America’s first Olympics, Rio kicked off another 11-days of sport with the stadium practically sold out. There were a smattering of empty seats as the lights went down.
The relief of Paralympic chiefs and Rio organizers was obvious after days of anxiety and cutbacks with International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven admitting it was the worst build-up to a modern Games.
Let the games begin! One of the evening’s highlights came near the climax of the ceremony with the lighting of the Paralympic cauldron by Clodoaldo Silva, whose appearance was hailed by the crowd
Conondrum: Silva was faced by a slight of stairs but they suddenly opened up to reveal ramps and he traveled up them to light the pyre
The Games are now open! The pyre was created by American sculptor Anthony Howe, who specialises in wind propelled kinetic sculptures
Singing in the rain: Artists dance in the rain at the end of the opening ceremony of the Rio Paralympic Games; the end of the ceremony was hit with a torrential downpour
Party time! Rio’s Paralympic Games finally got underway with a huge firework display shortly after 6pm local time, nearly some three weeks after the Olympics closed
No expense spared on the firework budget! Although the Paralympics has been beset by budgetary issues, the organizers looked determined to put on a show to remember
Countdown! Sir Philip Craven entered the Maracana, activating a countdown to an extraordinary opening that saw athlete Aaron Wheelz (pictured) jump in his wheelchair down a 55ft ramp
Here we go! Wheelz, who was born in Las Vegas, begins his descent to capture his madcap stunt in front of the thrilled fans
Lift-off! Wheels, who was born with spina bifida, triggered a massive explosion of fireworks which was greeted by roars from the near sell-out crowd
It was only earlier today, Sir Philip revealed, that money promised by Rio to pay for the travel costs of athletes had been paid while a surge in ticket sales – 1.6-million of the 2.5 million have been sold – means that unlike the Olympics, many of the stadiums will be full.
The final 2,000 tickets for the opening ceremony were sold hours ahead of the extravaganza of color, music and Brazilian culture built around the central theme of the ‘heart knowing no limit.’
As the crowd settled in a stadium that had been bathed in sunshine throughout the day – another contrast to the appalling weather that marred the Olympic Closing Ceremony – a video began with Sir Philip at Stoke Mandeville, the English town that is the cradle of the Paralympic Movement, and was the inspiration for the first Games after the hospital there received soldiers who had suffered awful spinal injuries during World War ll.
He then traveled in a montage of Brazilian landscapes before entering the Maracana and activating the countdown to an extraordinary opening that saw athlete Aaron Wheelz, jump in his wheelchair down a 55ft ramp – the height of a six story building.
Wheelz, who was born with spina bifida, triggered an explosion of fireworks greeted by roars from the crowds.
His real name is Aaron Fotheringham but the 24 year-old is universally known as Aaron Wheelz because of his skill performing tricks adapted from skateboarding and BMX.
The American, who has used a wheelchair since the age of three, is famous for the quote : ‘If it has wheels, how can it not be fun.’
Just another day at the beach! No celebration of Rio and its culture would be complete without a tribute to its beach culture of the Caricoa
Just in case it rains! Performers brandish giant umbrellas in a brightly-colored segment paying tribute to Brazil’s beach culture, filled with every day scenes you’d see on the Copacabana every day
Now where did I put my beach towel! The beach was then filled with every day scenes from Copacabana as sports such as beach volleyball, frescobol and surfing filled the arena floor
Life’s a beach! The segment began with a projection of shimmering blue waters and a dive through it by Daniel Dias, Brazil’s greatest Paralympic medallist with 10 gold, four silver and one bronze in the pool
In their message to Rio, the ceremony’s organisers told those in the stadium : ‘To a certain – uncertain – measure, aren’t we all disabled ? And able ? This was the guiding question that inspired each moment of the ceremony’
A total of 4,342 athletes from 159 countries are taking part in Rio – two countries dropped out at the last minute, Liberia and Comoros, – and many of them were inside the Maracana
Samba time! Performers banging on the drums as they have a ball as the opening ceremony for the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro finally got going
Samba circles were then formed by 88 people, including eight musicians and 20 wheelchair users, as the trademark music of Brazil rang out. Projections gave the unnerving impression the stage was revolving with gears, engines and sounds marking the invention of the wheel.
No celebration of Rio and its culture would have been complete without a tribute to its beach culture of the Caricoa. The segment began with a projection of shimmering blue waters and a dive through it by Daniel Dias, Brazil’s greatest Paralympic medallist with 10 gold, four silver and one bronze in the pool.
The beach was then filled with every day scenes from Copacabana as sports such as beach volleyball, frescobol (a form of football with the aim of never letting the ball hit the sand) and surfing filled the arena floor.
The athletes , who had waited patiently in the wings, then entered the stadium each led by a volunteer carrying a jigsaw piece with the name of the nation on it.
One giant jigsaw puzzle of the United Nations was gradually built on the floor with 1,160 pieces and 6,315 photos of athletes, 1,838 of them in wheelchairs.
Respect: The Brazilian anthem is played by João Carlos Martins on piano, with the crowd cheering as the flag was place on the mast. Meanwhile hundreds of volunteers created a mosaic of the flag while the anthem was being played
Patriotic: The volunteers came together to form the iconic yellow, blue and green Bandeira do Brasil (flag of Brazil), which has the motto ‘Order and Progress’ inscribed on the blue disc in the middle
Drumroll please! Colorfully-clad Samba dancers performing during the opening ceremony just before the athletes began to fan into the Maracana
A total of 4,342 athletes from 159 countries are taking part in Rio – two countries dropped out at the last minute, Liberia and Comoros, – and many of them were inside the Maracana.
In a moment of controversy, the Belarusian team defied Paralympic chiefs and entered the stadium waving a Russian flag in apparent support of their controversially banned neighbors. Russian athletes meanwhile staged their own opening ceremony back in Moscow for their own games, including some 270 athletes.
There was a massive cheer for the US team led in by cyclist Allison Jones, who has eight Paralympic medals and is one of the few athletes with gold medals from summer and winter Olympics.
Many of the 289-strong team were carrying selfie-sticks as they walked round the arena waving at the crowds.
‘Being able to consider ending my Paralympic career with this honor is just amazing,’ Jones said earlier. ‘Only one person gets chosen out of almost 300 hundred athletes on the team. That enough people believed in me, my story and my legacy, it’s just a real honor.’
USA USA! There was a massive cheer for the American team led in by cyclist Allison Jones, who has eight Paralympic medals and is one of the few athletes with gold medals from summer and winter Olympics
Going for gold: Many of the 289-strong Team USA were carrying selfie-sticks as they walked round the arena waving at the crowds; they will hope to improve on their fourth place from London 2012
Having a ball! The US athletes looked like they were having the time of their lives as they took part in the parade, decked out in their distinctive Ralph Lauren gear
Formidable: The US athletes looked happy to be there but will no doubt mean business over the next 11 days
The British are coming! Ten time equestrian gold medalist Lee Pearson led Britain’s 263-strong Paralympians into the stadium waving the Union flag
Diverse: Pearson, who is openly gay, said he believes the fact ‘a gay bloke’ had been selected as flag bearer by his team-mates shows the strength and diversity of the team and the nation
Aiming for the top? Team GB finished third at their home games, amassing 120 medals, but they want to go one better this team, with Russia out of the running
Just another piece of the puzzle: One giant jigsaw puzzle of the United Nations is being built on the floor with 1,160 pieces and 6,315 photos of athletes, 1,838 of them in wheelchairs; The British were clad out in ASOS designed official gear
The pieces of the jigsaw come together: The team of athletes, who had waited patiently in the wings, entered the stadium each led by a volunteer carrying a jigsaw piece with the name of the nation on it – in this case South Africa
Here come the Aussies! The Australia team is led out by flag bearer Brad Ness, a wheelchair basketball player, who won gold at Beijing in 2008 and silver in Athens 2004 and London 2012
Together as one: One Australian athlete carries another on his shoulders as the team makes their appearance in the stadium; Australia finished fifth in the Paralympic table back in 2012
Lee Pearson, a 42-year-old equestrian rider who has won 12 Paralympic medals, including 10 golds, over four games, represented Team GB as their flag bearer.
Speaking after the honor of flying the flag, he said: ‘That was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. I am a proud Brit and I’m even more proud now after leading the ParalympicsGB athletes out.
‘We had such good banter before coming into the stadium, they were all so supportive and lovely. Now let’s crack on with the Games and show the world what we can do. It’s been an absolutely brilliant opening ceremony.’
ParalympicsGB Chef de Mission Penny Briscoe said: ‘It’s been an absolutely fantastic Opening Ceremony. The atmosphere at the Maracana has been electric.
‘It’s great for the team to be here in Rio with the competition beginning shortly. The team look and feel fantastic and I know they will do us all proud over the next 11 days.’
One of the biggest cheers of the night was for the two strong refugee team – appearing for the first time. They are comprised of Syrian swimmer Ibrahim Al-Hussein, who lost a leg in an explosion in his nation’s civil war, and Iranian discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour.
There was perhaps understandably a mixed reaction for the small official Syrian team with some boos while the biggest cheer of the evening obviously went to the home team of Brazil.
Protest: The Belarusian team defied Paralympic chiefs and entered the stadium waving a Russian flag in apparent support of their controversially banned neighbours
Controversial: Russia’s total ban from the Games has been just one of the controversies that has blighted the run-up to Rio (pictured, a member of Belarus carries a Russian flag in support of the banned country)
Team of two! One of the biggest cheers of the night was for the two strong refugee team – appearing for the first time. They are comprised of Syrian swimmer Ibrahim Al-Hussein (the flag bearer), who lost a leg in an explosion in his nation’s civil war, and Iranian discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour
The favorites! China will be the ones to beat, having finished first in the medal table for the last three Olympics. They racked up an incredible haul of 231 medals in London, bettering their home Paralympics total by 20
Taking it all in: One member of the Chinese delegation goes against the throng of people marching round the stadium to grab himself a slice of history on his phone
Here come Canada: The Canadians will be hoping to better their haul from Beijing, where they could only muster 31 medals and finished a disappointing 20th in the medal table
Ready to ride: Athletes from Spain make their way into the stadium; members of the athletics team have already reported robberies in their rooms at the Paralympic Village
Vive le France! Athletes from the French delegation take part; they could only muster 45 medals in London, enough for only 16th place; they won eight golds
Lonely? Jamaica, spring powerhouses in the Olympics with Usain Bolt at the helm, have a rather smaller contingent at the Paralympics – precisely a team of three
Luck of the Irish: The Ireland team are led out by flag bearer, sailor and Paralympic veteran John Twomey; Ireland also boast in the ranks Jason Smyth, who clocked the fastest ever Paralympic time when he won the 100m in London with 10.46 seconds
Iran (left), whose flag bearer is Eshrat Kordestani, have sent a total of 111 athletes to compete in Rio; they boast among their ranks one of Rio’s top stars powerlifter Siamand Rahman; Meanwhile right, Iraq’s athletes take center stage
Surprise contender: Although Tunisia only ranked 75th in the Olympic medals table in Rio last month, it could finish towards the top end in the Paralympics, because it has made something of a specialty of supporting its disabled athletes
Everyone’s here! North Korea (left) is even taking part in the celebrations, albeit with a small team; while Tonga (right) took a leaf out of their oiled-up flagbearer’s page from last month, donning similar outfits
It isn’t a party until the hosts arrive! Brazil took its place at last in the line as is tradition; they will be looking to do their nation proud after what has been a horrible run-up
Trendsetters: The snazzy Brazilian team doff their hats to the raucous audience, who understandably gave them the biggest cheer of the night
Bearing the brunt! Volunteers place all the flags together once they have been brought in by the athletes
Have a heart: A giant jigsaw puzzle in the shape of a heart completed with pieces made from the names of the participating countries shines during the opening ceremony
Following the lengthy parade, Carlos Arthur Nuzman, President of Rio’s organising committee, told the stadium : ‘The Paralympic city is ready, here we stand to deliver history.’
At one stage, Nuzman had to stop speaking for nearly 30 seconds because of the furious boos after he mentioned the country’s delicate political situation that has seen former president Dilma Rousseff removed from office and then impeached.
Sir Philip then took the stand, declaring: ‘Over the next 12 days, through the performances of Paralympians, you will see the true meaning of sport and the true definition of ability. You will witness how Paralympic sport has the ability to inspire an individual, and the outstanding capacity to transform communities, countries and continents.
Eight children being propped up by their parents thanks to special footwear, bring the Paralympic flag into the center of the Maracana
Unwelcome guests: Carlos Arthur Nuzman, President of Rio’s organising committee (left), was booed after mentioning the country’s political situation, while Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee (right) was also on the receiving end of the crowd’s ire
Mesmerizing: Menacing-looking dancers clad in black but bathed partly in light wow the crowd with their display
Uniform: Performers during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games at the Maracana
Coming together: Dancers took the center stage after the welcome speeches from the Brazilian President, who was roundly booed, as well as the Rio organizing committee
Tango for two: Dancers ‘Oscar and Renata’ took to the stage; Oscar is completely blind, while Renata only has 20 per cent eyesight, but the pair delivered a wonderful routine
‘In a country which has faced major challenges of late, Paralympians will switch your focus from perceived limitations, to a world full of possibility and endless opportunity. They will surprise you, inspire and excite you, but most of all they will change you.’
He added: ‘I ask you to play fair, abide by the rules and most of all have fun by doing what you do best. Rio is powered by its people and the Carioca know what these Games will do for inclusion.’
Sir Philip was also booed when he thanked the government but they reached a crescendo when the new President Michael Temer was called on to declare the Games open. Chants of ‘Dilma’ rang out.
Striking: Amy Purdy, a Paralympian athlete and star of Dancing With the Stars, wowed the crowd with a duet with a robot
Man and machine: The segment represented the modern coexistence of man and technology, a dancer and robot in a game of seduction as their movements were gradually harmonised
In a somewhat farcical moment, Temer rushed through his quick speech so quickly that no-one could actually tell if he had in fact declared the games open, because the boos were so loud.
A highlight of the opening ceremony included a five minute-long samba by US snowboarder and Paralympic medalist Amy Purdy, whose legs were amputated below the knee after contracting bacterial meningitis aged 19.
Picked out by a spotlight, Purdy, who began on legs and then switched to blades, was then shown dancing in a section choreographed by Brazilian Cassi Abranches.
She encountered a giant robot named Kuka after the German company that made it and she moved around it with amazing speed and grace, her two ‘blades’ striking in the bright light.
The segment represented the modern coexistence of man and technology, a dancer and robot in a game of seduction as their movements were gradually harmonised.
A veteran of Dancing With The Stars, Purdy, who works as a model and presenter, won a bronze medal in snowboarding in Sochi two years ago. She had been invited to dance to the music of two samba bands from Rio’s notorious favelas made up of performers with disabilities.
The most dramatic moment of the whole evening was an unplanned one. There was shock and gasps in the stadium when during the final procession Marcia Malsar, who was walking with the help of a support in torrential rain, slipped and dropped the torch.
Malsar was a member of the Brazilian delegation that helped boost Paralympic sport at the New York/Stoke Mandeville Games in 1984.
As officials rushed to her aid, she rose to her feet and amid huge roars continued to carry the torch on.
The climax of the ceremony came with the lighting of the Paralympic cauldron by Clodoaldo Silva, whose appearance was hailed by the crowd.
Known as the Paralympic Shark, he is a wheelchair user and holds the record of the most medals won at Games with 13, including six gold, which he plans to increase over the coming days in Rio.
He was passed the torch to the recently retired track star Adria Rocha Santos – who until the age of 18 had only 10 per cent of her eyesight yet appeared in six Paralympic Games in a 26-year career.
Silva was faced by a flight of stairs and looking from his wheelchair asked the audience ‘What do I do now ?’ Suddenly, the stairs opened revealing ramps and he travels up these to light the pyre, created by American sculptor Anthony Howe, who specializes in wind propelled kinetic sculptures.
From the top! A fish-eye lens view of the fireworks erupting during a vibrant opening ceremony
Packed house: The Maracana was practically full, with just a smattering of empty seats; a noted contrast to the Olympics, which was plagued by poor attendance throughout
Ready to roll! The opening stadium’s lights fall, save for the thousands of people taking photos on their phone, before things get going for round two in Rio
Belle of the ball: Actress Fernanda Lima holds hands with the official Paralympic mascot ‘Tom’, a plant made of all Brazilian plants, named after Brazilian musician Tom Jobin
Go green! The stadium is bathed in a green light with white undertones towards the end of the athletes’ parade
Get ready Rio! Fans fill into the stadium ahead of the Opening Ceremony; Organizers were worried about the number of tickets sold until just a few hours before the event, but were boosted by a last minute surge
On with the show! Throngs of people make their way to the opening ceremony, in an encouraging sign that the Opening Ceremony would be packed
Here they come! The relief of Paralympic chiefs and Rio organizers was obvious after days of anxiety and cutbacks with International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven admitting it was the worst build-up to a modern Games
Welcome to Rio, who wants a hug? An excited Brazilian supporter covered in foliage cheers in front of the Maracana ahead of the opening ceremony
Eyebrows have been raised in Brazil about the non appearance of International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach at last night ceremony.
He was attending a memorial service in Germany but it was the first time in 32-years the IOC president has not attended an opening ceremony.
There was speculation it could have been triggered by the Paralympic Movement’s decision to ban all Russian athletes from Rio, following a World Anti-Doping report which alleged a vast state-sponsored doping program. The Russians decided to host their own All-Russian Paralympic Contest on Moscow, with more than 260 athletes taking part. Their opening ceremony, was coincidentally on Wednesday evening as well.
Team USA is ready! The US Paralympic twitter feed showed a number of American athletes donning their Ralph Lauren ensembles before heading to the Maracana to be part of the parade
Going for gold: Team USA is hoping to win 100 medals for the first time since 2000; they finished fourth in the medal table in London, but this time Russia isn’t here
They mean business! For the first time since 2004, all eight US team sports qualified for the Games, boosting hopes of a record haul, or even coming top of the medal table like the Olympic team did
Britain’s Paralympians are hoping to return home with a record haul of medals. Four years ago at London 2012, the hosts claimed 120 medals, 34 of them gold, to finish third in the medal table but with Russia banned from Rio, a target of 121 is expected to be exceeded with insiders believing there are medal chances across all 19 of the 22 sports in which Britain is competing.
WHAT ARE THE 22 SPORTS IN THE PARALYMPICS?
Archery, athletics, boccia, cycling (road and track), equestrian, football 5-a-side, football 7-a-side, goalball, judo, paracanoe, paratriathlon, powerlifting, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming, table tennis, volleyball, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair fencing, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair tennis
Several former members of the Armed Forces – some injured in Iraq and Afghanistan – are part of the team.
Prince Harry, who founded the Invictus Games – a Paralympic-style competition for injured servicemen and women – has sent a good luck message to the 11 Invictus Games competitors taking part in Rio, saying ‘the fight to the finish line won’t be easy’.
Team USA hopes to reach 100 medals for the first time since 2000. One of their notable performers includes Melissa Stockwell, the first female US soldier to lose a limb in active combat.
For the first time since 2004, all eight US team sports qualified for the Games, boosting hopes of more medals.
It seems likely that the US and GB will be battling it out for second place behind China.
The Chinese will have a record 308 athletes in Rio looking to beat their 95 gold medals from London when they topped the table for the third straight Games.
Rio 2016 spokesperson Mario Andrada said: ‘We are following very much the same pattern that we have seen in the Olympic Games. Right before the Olympic Games we were selling around 40,000 tickets a day and we are selling around 40,000 tickets a day now for the Paralympics.
Meanwhile in Moscow… Members of the Russian Paralympic Team took part in their own All-Russian Paralympic Contest, after the whole Russian Paralympic Committee was suspended amid a doping scandal
Sore losers? Members of the Russian Paralympic Team at the opening ceremony of the Open All-Russian Paralympic Contest, part of the Summer Paralympic Games at Crocus City Hall. More than 260 athletes are to take part
Final hurdle: A torch bearer carries the Paralympic flame during the Torch Relay along Ipanema beach before the Opening Ceremony in Rio
Glorious day: A torch bearer poses in front of the Paralympic symbol, Agitos, amid glorious weather along Rio’s famous Copacabana beach before the Ceremony
Fired up! This torchbearer looked delighted to be part of the relay, part of the final moments before the Rio games got going
We made it! Rio 2016 workers celebrate after the Torch Relay ended at Copacabana before its final stop at the Maracana
‘We had peaks of selling 146,000 tickets (a day) for the Paralympics. The day that we sold most tickets was for the Paralympics.
‘If you count the tickets sold we expect more people in the Paralympic Park next Saturday and Sunday than we could have seen during the Olympic Games.’
The Games have also been overshadowed by financial worries and slow ticket sales. But organisers have reported a dramatic turnaround since the end of the Olympics, when only 300,000 tickets had been sold.
Top stars in Rio include Iranian powerlifter Siamand Rahman, Britain’s wheelchair racer David Weir and China’s blind sprinter Liu Cuiqing.
Visually-impaired Irish sprinter Jason Smyth, who clocked the fastest ever Paralympic time when he won the 100m in London with 10.46 seconds, will also return to defend his crown, although he will miss the opening ceremony because his opening heat takes place the following day.
THE 15TH PARALYMPICS BY NUMBERS
2.4 million tickets on sale
15,000 spare parts in repair workshop, including athletes’ wheelchairs and prostheses
2,642 Medals up for grabs
‘As incredible as the opening ceremony is, there’s a lot of standing around and it wouldn’t be the ideal preparation for me, with my first race taking pace the next day,’ he said.
Smyth was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease as a child, which left him with less than 10 per cent of his normal vision.
Alan Oliveira, the Brazilian who famous beat Oscar Pistorius in the 200m in London, will have a lot of pressure on him as the home favorite. He is the fastest double amputee of all time, with 10.57 seconds in the 100m.
Two new events – canoe-kayak and triathlon – make their appearance on the 22-sport menu, with competitors from 161 nations.
Caught in political and economic crises, Rio 2016 organizers have skimped as far as they can on food, transport and accommodation.
Part of Rio’s problem is that it is following London 2012, hailed as the best Paralympics ever in terms of public support and sporting performance.
To keep the Rio Games on track, city authorities had to promise 150 million reais ($46 million) in August while the government got state companies to inject another 100 million reais in sponsorship.
Despite all the problems however, organizers believe that unlike the Olympics, which was somewhat marred by empty seats at many venues, most stadiums will sell out.
Mario Andrada, Rio 2016 spokesman, said: ‘We are following very much the same pattern that we have seen in the Olympic Games. Right before the Olympic Games we were selling around 40,000 tickets a day and we are selling around 40,000 tickets a day now for the Paralympics.
‘We had peaks of selling 146,000 tickets (a day) for the Paralympics. The day that we sold most tickets was for the Paralympics.
‘If you count the tickets sold we expect more people in the Paralympic Park next Saturday and Sunday than we could have seen during the Olympic Games.’
In their message to Rio, the ceremony’s organisers told those in the stadium: ‘To a certain – uncertain – measure, aren’t we all disabled ? And able ? This was the guiding question that inspired each moment of the ceremony.
‘And this is our call : an invitation to welcome each and every one of us, along with our rights and wrongs, highs and lows, certainties and uncertainties. To look at diversity as power, to view those who transcend limits with admiration, to regard coexistence as the key to the legacy for the future.’