RIO DE JANEIRO: Rio de Janeiro opened the Paralympic Games on Wednesday with samba, parading wheelchairs, giant balloons and loud booing of Brazil’s president at a sold-out Maracana stadium.
The extraordinary sight of US Paralympian Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham jumping in his wheelchair from a 55-foot (17-meter) ramp got the crowd on its feet. Then the joyous rhythms of samba singers and a carnivalesque reproduction of a Rio beach scene got them dancing.
A sultry dance between an industrial robot and Amy Purdy, a US Paralympian and model wearing running blades, provided another eye-catching moment.
Brazil’s tensions also flared with thousands in the crowd chanting “Out with Temer!” as newly sworn-in President Michel Temer appeared at the ceremony just days after taking over from his bitter rival, the impeached Dilma Rousseff.
Temer’s hurried declaration of “I declare the Games open” was met with a roar of boos, and booing also forced Brazilian Olympics boss Carlos Nuzman to pause his speech after mentioning “thanks to the federal, state and municipal governments.”
Coming right after a vibrant but sometimes tricky Olympics, the Paralympics present one more challenge for Rio in a period of deep recession and political instability.
But “Brazilians never give up,” Nuzman said, telling the athletes: “You are superhumans.”
Blind, missing limbs, or partially paralyzed, more than 4,300 of the world’s toughest and most competitive disabled paraded ahead of 11 days of contests. Some pushed their own wheelchairs, others were pushed, while others limped.
Even a sudden downpour accompanied by thunder could not dampen the cheers greeting the severely disabled torch bearers who closed the show by carrying the Olympic flame to light the cauldron.
However, controversy hung over the no-show by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach — the first absence of an IOC chief since the 1984 Summer Games.
Bach is due at a mourning ceremony in Berlin for the late West German president Walter Scheel.
However, there have been suggestions that the no-show had more 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 softer line, which allowed some Russians to compete.
Globo and other Brazilian media outlets also printed reports that Bach is wanted for questioning by local police investigating an illegal ticket-selling ring allegedly involving a senior Irish Olympic official.
Rio police were to give a news conference on the matter Thursday.
“Whether there’s anything else — I don’t know if there’s anything else,” International Paralympic Committee President Philip 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 that 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.
Constrained by political and economic crises, Rio 2016 organizers have skimped as far as they could on food, transport and accommodation.
Slow ticket sales also overshadowed the run-up to the Games, which followed concerns about half-empty stadiums at many of the Olympics 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,” he said. “Our aim is to sell around 2.4 million.”
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 together with Iranian discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour make up a two-strong refugee team.
Although the record of 41 career gold medals won by blind American swimmer Trischa Zorn between 1980 and 2004 looks unbeatable, the Paralympics will inevitably produce new stars.
Iran’s 28-year-old powerlifter Siamand Rahman, disabled since birth, is aiming to become the first Paralympian to bench press 300kg. Others to watch include Britain’s wheelchair racer David Weir and China’s blind sprinter Liu Cuiqing.
China will have its biggest-ever team of 308 athletes in Rio looking to beat their 95 gold medals from London, where 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.