A spectacular opening ceremony was set to ring in the biggest ever Paralympic Games on Wednesday, with double amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius among those gearing up for 11 days of competition.
Stephen Hawking, Britain’s most famous living scientist, was expected to feature in the ceremony at London’s Olympic Stadium, where the curtain came down on the Olympic Games just two weeks ago.
Hawking, who has motor neurone disease and has been paralysed for most of his life, was set to appear alongside a cast of more than 3,000 at the ceremony, where Queen Elizabeth II will officially open the Games.
A record 4,200 athletes are taking part in the Paralympics across 20 sports, with the event expected to sell out for the first time and win its biggest ever television audience.
The Paralympic torch arrived in London early on Wednesday after travelling in an overnight relay through the English countryside.
It was lit at Stoke Mandeville – the hospital that is the spiritual home of disabled sport – on Tuesday evening and carried 148 kilometres southeast by 116 teams of five people.
Cheers and prayers met the flame as it arrived in northwest London at the Shree Swaminarayan Hindu temple, before travelling through the British capital past famous landmarks including Westminster Abbey and Piccadilly Circus.
The torch was heading east for the start of the ceremony at 7.30 GMT, which will be watched by some 80,000 people in the stadium.
Organisers have described the ceremony, which is named “Enlightenment”, as a “celebration of the inspirational spirit of the Paralympic Games that challenges perceptions of human possibility”.
The British Paralympic Association (BPA) has said the ceremony will be “groundbreaking in its inclusivity and innovative staging”, showcasing deaf and disabled artists.
It has been created by artistic directors Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings, both of whom have a long history of hosting live shows involving disabled performers.
“Aerobility”, a British charity that trains disabled people to become pilots, will perform a fly-past, the BPA said.
Across the 11 days of elite disability sport, the International Paralympic Committee predicts a global television audience of more than four billion – a record for the Games, which first took place in Rome in 1960.
Organisers believe much of the interest has come after a successful Olympics for British athletes, which saw the host nation finish third in the overall medal table behind the United States and China.
Britain is also considered the “spiritual home” of the Paralympics, as the first recognised sports events for athletes with disabilities was held in Stoke Mandeville in 1948.
The sporting action begins on Thursday, with shooting set to provide the first gold of the Games in the women’s 10m standing air rifle.
Medals are also up for grabs in the velodrome with the finals of the men and women’s individual pursuit, in four weight categories in judo at the ExCel Arena and at the Aquatics Centre, where 15 swimming finals are to be held.
The showpiece athletics programme gets under way on Friday with the spotlight on South Africa’s Pistorius, who is seeking to defend his T44 100m, 200m and 400m titles from Beijing four years ago.
Pistorius, dubbed the “Blade Runner” because he runs on carbon fibre blades, made history earlier this month by becoming the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics when he ran in the 400m heats and 4x400m relay final.
But on Tuesday he played down expectations of repeating his Beijing treble, with Britain’s world-record holder Jonnie Peacock and world champion Jerome Singleton of the United States likely to feature in the 100m final.
“It’s important to note that I haven’t run a 100m personal best in five years. It’s not really my event,” he told a news conference, adding that he would “be happy” with a medal of any colour in the blue riband sprint.