Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sep 7 – Rio de Janeiro set aside worries over finances, ticket sales and politics for a spectacular opening show Wednesday welcoming thousands of athletes to the start of the Paralympics.
Blind, missing limbs or partially paralyzed, the world’s toughest and most competitive disabled were to parade in the famed Maracana football stadium ahead of 11 days of contests.
For Rio, the Paralympics, coming right after a vibrant, but sometimes tricky Olympics, are one more challenge in a period of deep recession and political instability.
But all those worries were to be set aside for the sporting extravaganza where top stars include Iranian powerlifter Siamand Rahman, Britain’s wheelchair racer David Weir and China’s blind sprinter Liu Cuiqing.
“These are going to be the people’s Games. You can’t come to a more passionate people for sport,” International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven said at a press conference Wednesday in Rio.
He said that 4,342 athletes from 159 countries, plus members of the international refugee team, were taking part and quipped: “All I saw were happy athletes in the Village.”
Noting that the Games would be broadcast in 154 countries, Craven said the Paralympics had the power to change the way people around the world think about the disabled.
“That’s where transformation happens,” he said.
– Olympics chief controversy –
However, controversy hung over the opening ceremony after confirmation that International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach will not be attending. This would be the first absence of an IOC chief since the 1984 Summer Games.
Bach is reportedly due at a mourning ceremony in Berlin for the late West German president, Walter Scheel. South African IOC member Sam Ramsamy was taking Bach’s place.
However, there have been suggestions that the no-show has to do with divisions over the Paralympic committee’s outright ban on Russian athletes after allegations of a state-sanctioned doping program and the IOC’s relatively softer line.
“Whether there’s anything else — I don’t know if there’s anything else,” Craven said of Bach’s decision.
Russian para-athletes, who finished second behind China in the London 2012 medals table, were barred last month following a World Anti-Doping Agency report which alleged a vast state-sponsored doping program.
Separately UK Athletics will review classifications after the Games, according to BBC News, following concerns that athletes were being mismatched to create an unfair advantage.
“We are here to win medals, but within both the letter and the spirit of the Paralympics,” insisted British Paralympic Association chief Tim Hollingsworth.
– Tickets surge –
Two new events — canoe-kayak and triathlon — will make their appearance on the 22-sport menu.
Six countries are sending athletes for the very first time, and Syrian swimmer Ibrahim Al-Hussein, who lost a leg in an explosion in his nation’s civil war, and Iranian discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour make up a two-strong refugee team.
Caught in political and economic crises, Rio 2016 organizers have skimped as far as they can on food, transport and accommodation.
The runup to the Games was also overshadowed by slow ticket sales. This follows concerns about half-empty stadiums at many of the Olympic events.
But organizers have reported a dramatic turnaround in the last few days.
“Two weeks ago we were at 200,000” tickets sold, Craven said. Now sales have reached 1.6 million and are “growing every day.”
“We’ll soon be over the 1.7 million mark. Our aim is to sell around 2.4 million,” he said.
– Stars –
The record of 41 career gold medals won by blind American swimmer Trischa Zorn between 1980 and 2004 looks unbeatable, but the Paralympics will inevitably produce new stars.
Iran’s 28-year-old Rahman, disabled since birth, is aiming to become the first Paralympian to bench press 300kg.
China will have its biggest ever team of 308 athletes in Rio looking to beat their 95 gold medals from London when they topped the table for the third straight Paralympics.
They have swimmer Xu Qing competing in his fourth and possibly last Games, seeking to add to his seven gold medals.
Meanwhile Britain’s Weir is in Rio to add to his six gold medals. The 37-year-old, born with a spinal deformity that has kept him confined to a wheelchair since birth, is entered in five events.
“It will be my last Paralympics and I just want to medal,” he said. “If I come away with a medal, I’ll be happy. My coach is telling me that I’m quicker and faster than I’ve ever been, so that gives me a lot of confidence.”