President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Andrew Parsons told athletes that they were the “the best of humanity” as the Tokyo Paralympics kicked off with a vibrant Opening Ceremony on Tuesday.
The delayed 16th Summer Paralympics will take place amid a surge of Covid-19 cases in the country but those inside the stadium were in celebratory mood as the competition officially began in unprecedented circumstances.
“I cannot believe we are finally here. Many doubted this day would happen,” said Parsons in his Opening Ceremony speech.
“Many thought it impossible. But thanks to the efforts of many, the most transformative sport event on Earth is about to begin.
“We want to change the entire world.”
Tokyo is the first city to host the Paralympics Games twice and organizers will be hoping for another successful competition following the Olympic Games less than a month ago.
It kicked off proceedings in typical lively fashion, with volunteers and dancers welcoming the delegations into the National Stadium.
Parade of nations
The countries were led out by the Paralympic Refugee Team, with athletes Alia Issa and Abbas Karimi acting as the flag bearers.
The group of six athletes “represents the more than 82 million people around the world who have been forced to flee war, persecution and human rights abuses – 12 million of whom live with a disability,” according to the IPC.
Shortly after the Refugee Team took to the stage, a volunteer carried out the flag of Afghanistan in a moment of solidarity with the country.
Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games
Due to the Taliban’s return to power, flights from the country have been canceled meaning Afghanistan’s athletes were unable to attend the Games.
“We would like to have them here, unfortunately it is not possible, but they will be here in spirit,” Parsons said earlier this week.
Over 4,000 athletes are expected to compete across 22 different sports at this year’s Games and many were enjoying the carnival atmosphere during the parade of nations, cheered on by the ever enthusiastic volunteers.
One nation, New Zealand, decided to opt out of the Opening Ceremony as a Covid-19 precaution.
The team said that its athletes gathering in large groups with people from across the world was at odds with its own protocols.
It comes as Tokyo has witnessed a surge of new confirmed cases in recent weeks, with the government extending the state of emergency in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures to September 12.
‘Your time to be relabeled’
Once all athletes had entered the stadium, they were treated to a stunning light show, firework display and dance performance.
Parsons and Japan’s Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto then took to the stage for their speeches before the country’s Emperor Naruhito officially declared the Games open.
“Paralympians! You gave your all to be here. Blood, sweat and tears. Now is your moment to show the world your skill, your strength, your determination,” Parsons added in his passionate speech.
“If the world has ever labeled you, now is your time to be relabeled: champion, hero, friend, colleague, role model or just human.
“You are the best of humanity and the only ones who can decide who and what you are.”
There was time for more festivities and artistic performances before the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame. Volunteers and athletes carried cherry blossom inspired torches to ignite the first ever hydrogen fueled cauldron at the Games. The flame was left roaring as the ceremony was brought to a close.
“We have been waiting almost five years for these Games and we always kept true to the same dream – to compete, to win a medal, and to enjoy the Games as much as possible,” said Spanish athlete Michelle Alonso Morales.
“So while these Games are different, we are going to enjoy them just as much.”
‘Real life superheroes’
Some of sport’s biggest stars have already thrown their support behind the athletes in Tokyo.
Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford wrote a number of messages on Twitter in the build up to the competition, urging people to tune into the coverage and calling the competitors “real life superheroes.”
Bayern Munich star Alphonso Davies also penned an open letter to the Paralympic Refugee Team, calling its six members inspirational.
“Make no mistake, what you are about to do in Tokyo will change people’s lives,” he wrote.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King also tweeted a message of support for those taking part.
“Good luck to all the terrific athletes who have trained so hard in their sports for the chance to win a medal,” she wrote.
Events are set to begin on Wednesday and run through to September 5.