The expensive theatrics and brilliant pyrotechnics Wednesday underscored just how far the event has come, with London staging a multimillion-dollar pageant drawing on everything from Shakespeare to the Big Bang. Performers with disabilities soared in the air on zip lines as Hawking, arguably the globe’s most celebrated living scientist, used his trademark voice box to deliver a metaphorical message: “Look upon the stars, and not down at your feet.”
On a day in which the Paralympic flame en route through London was delayed by two hours because of weather, the ceremonies — far more sober, if occasionally just as esoteric, than the Olympic opener last month — paid lengthy and elaborate homage to the umbrella. The assembly of 4,300 athletes from 164 nations included renowned South African “blade runner” Oscar Pistorius, Britain’s Martine Wright, who lost her legs in the 2005 London bombings, and Afghanistan’s sole paralympian, the cabdriver-cum-weightlifter Mohammed Fahim, a land-mine victim who opened the parade as his nation’s flag-bearer.
“The Games are returning to the country where they first began more than 60 years ago,” Queen Elizabeth II, who presided over Wednesday’s opening, said in a statement. Prince Harry, nude photos of whom were recently leaked, was noticeably absent. “We look forward to celebrating the uplifting spirit which distinguishes the Paralympic Games.”
The crowds lining the streets of London on Wednesday for the last laps of the Paralympic torch relay were admittedly thinner than those that turned out about a month ago for the start of the Summer Games. But in a country that surprised the globe by dropping all pretense of British reserve to go absolutely gaga for the Olympics, there has been a profound embrace of the Paralympics, too, with these games on the cusp of becoming the first ever to sell out.
The event is not without controversy. British disabled groups are staging demonstrations this week to highlight government cuts and benefit reassessments being carried out by Atos, a private contractor that is also a key sponsor of the London Paralympics. But even that appears not to have dampened surging interest in the Paralympic competitions here. It is as if this nation, for whom the Olympics served as a temporary lift from the gloom of recession, simply cannot let go, remaining eager for every last drop of sweat and excitement it can wring out of the London Games.