By Nelson Belen, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – With only seventeen days since the close of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, last night (September 7th), on Brazil’s Independence Day, the eyes of the world once again turned to Maracanã Stadium as it hosted the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. For nearly four hours, the sold-out 78,000-seat stadium lit up the night sky with a cavalcade of fireworks, music, and dancing as the largest Paralympics Games ever gets underway.
More than 4,300 athletes with disabilities, from 159 nations, including two refugees representing the Paralympic refugee team, are set to compete in 23 different sports competitions over the next eleven days.
American wheelchair athlete Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham sped down a sixty-foot ramp and performed a reverse somersault through the air amidst a sea of fireworks to kick off the opening ceremony in spectacular fashion.
Using video projections, the floor of the famed stadium then turned into a gigantic swimming pool, with popular Brazilian Paralympian Daniel Dias appearing to swim across it. The swimming pool gave way to a typical carioca beach scene featuring hundreds of performers portraying beach-goers, vendors, and even stand-up paddleboarders.
Following the Brazilian national anthem, played on the piano by Carlos Martin whose right hand is severely disabled, came the always-popular parade of nations. For the Rio 2016 Paralympics parade of nations, each nation entered carrying a piece of a jigsaw puzzle bearing the country’s name on one side and the faces of various athletes on the other.
As each nation entered the pieces were placed on the ground, to begin forming a gigantic image featuring the faces of all 4,300 Paralympians. As host nation Brazil put the final piece into place to the roar of the sold-out crowd, the entire puzzle came together, again with the help of video projection, to form a beating, life-like heart.
Carlos Arthur Nuzman, president of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee and Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee then entered to address the audience.
“Everybody is a carioca,” exclaimed Nuzman. “Rio is ready. Here we stand for history that will be made by the athletes, volunteers and by you, right here, right now.”
However, while both Nuzman’s and Craven’s speeches were mostly well received by the crowd, they were not without awkward moments, particularly when each thanked the Brazilian government.
Perhaps stemming from frustration with the political turmoil currently gripping the country, boos and hisses rang down from the mostly hometown crowd at any mention of their nation’s government, with the loudest boos reserved for interim-President Michel Temer, who appeared next to officially open the Games.
The boos soon turned to cheers, however, as American Paralympic snowboarder Amy Purdy, who had both her legs amputated below the knee at the age of nineteen, performed an intricate dance that included ballet and samba, with her partner, a robotic arm.
Finally, a sudden downpour of heavy rain could not dampen the excitement of the arrival of the Paralympic torch. A hush came over the crowd as one of the final torchbearers, former Brazilian Paralympian Marcia Malsar, who walks with the aid of a walking stick, slipped and fell due to the torrential showers.
The former gold medalist, undeterred, quickly picked up the torch and rose to her feet to finish her leg of the relay resulting in one of the loudest ovations of the evening.
The four-hour ceremony climaxed with Brazilian Paralympic swimmer Clodoaldo Silva, ascending, in his wheelchair, a ramp that opened from the stage stairs, to light the Paralympic cauldron.
The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games get underway on Thursday, September 8th, with several competitions including cycling, judo, and swimming.