Paralympics ceremony leaves Rio much to live up to

A rousing send-off to an unforgettable summer gave the world a chance to celebrate 11 days of competition that have changed perceptions and stereotypes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2012, 1:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2012, 2:20am

Farewell, London. Good luck matching that, Rio.

Coldplay, Rihanna and Jay-Z  rocked the Olympic Stadium  to give the biggest-ever Paralympic Games a rousing send-off, wrapping up an unforgettable summer of sport in Britain.

The three-hour party at the packed 80,000-seat arena in east London gave the world a chance to celebrate 11 days of Paralympic competition that have shifted perceptions and shattered stereotypes about the disabled.

“In this country, we will never think of sport the same way and we will never think of disability the same way,” said Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London organising committee. “The Paralympians have lifted the cloud of limitation.”

Central to the closing ceremony – called the Festival of the Flame  – were the 4,200 Paralympians from 164 nations who encircled the field of play from the start, waving flags and taking in the extraordinary atmosphere. By the end of the extravaganza, they created an international mosh pit in front of the stage as volleys of fireworks rocketed above.

“It’s been an absolute triumph from start to finish,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose disabled son Ivan  died in 2009. “I think back to Ivan. As every parent, you think about all the things they can’t do, but at the Paralympics they are superhuman, you see all the things they can do.

“It’s been a golden summer of British sport.”

Coming after a hugely successful Olympic Games, the 2012 Paralympics broke all records, with 2.7 million spectators cramming into venues, more than US$70 million raised in ticket sales and the Games broadcast in more than 100 countries. They are unprecedented figures as the British public displayed an enthusiasm unseen in the 52-year history of the Paralympics.

The wide exposure introduced the world to Paralympians such as Dutch wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer,  who extended her nine-year unbeaten streak to 470 matches by winning the women’s singles, and David Weir,  a British wheelchair racer who won four golds in his home city.

It also enhanced the reputation of iconic South African double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who became the first track athlete to compete in both Games. He won two golds in the Paralympics, including in the 4x100-metre relay which was one of 251 world records broken at these games.

“People are going to look back at this Paralympic Games and for the first time really, truly believe that Paralympic sport is not just inspirational, it’s hard-core sport,” said Pistorius, who drew a rousing cheer as his image was displayed in a montage of Paralympians on the big screen.

A tribute to wounded British servicemen and members of the British army opened the show. Luke Sinnott,  a captain who lost both legs from above the knee in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2010, hung the Union flag at the top of a flagpole in the middle of the stadium. Rory Mackenzie,  a serviceman who lost his leg on patrol in a roadside bomb blast, gave a sonorous introduction to the theme of the four seasons that was at the heart of the show.

Proud flag-bearers from all competing nations marched in before a Mad Max-style parade of 25 trucks and motorcycles, in shapes that included peacocks and fish, stormed the stadium and kick-started Coldplay’s set.

Coldplay frontman Chris Martin  belted out top-selling hits like Clocks, Viva La Vida and Paradise.  “Nobody said it was easy,” a lyric from the moving song The Scientist,  seemed particularly apt for the occasion.

Coldplay, who were given a standing ovation when they performed their final song Every Teardrop is a Waterfall, said: “We can’t actually imagine a bigger honour” than playing at the Paralympics in their home city.

Artistic director Kim Gavin  created an electric production. White confetti rained down as snow, black crows on stilts encircled the stage, flaming butterflies swirled in the air and a flying motorbike driven by highwire artist Laszlo Simet  with disabled dancer Lyndsay Adams  powered across the stadium.

“Being at the Paralympics is the biggest honour,” said Rihanna.  “These athletes are gladiators and are a true inspiration to me.” She sang We Found Love while swinging in a chair high above the stage.

Such was the global attraction of performing at the closing ceremony that organisers were able to turn down approaches from other big artists. Sunday night’s stars, artists who have sold millions of records, were paid a nominal £1 (HK$12.40) to play.

The ceremony finished with the cauldron – made up of 200 petals – being extinguished, ending the Games in London and passing the baton to Rio de Janeiro for 2016.

The handover saw Rio mayor Eduardo Paes wave the Paralympic flag with abandon before Brazilian pop stars danced on to the stage.

“On August 29, we opened with the theme of ‘Enlightenment’,” said Philip Craven,  president of the International Paralympic Committee.

“Tonight, we are enlightened and armed with a superior knowledge of what can be achieved. The legacy of these Games will be long-lasting.”

Associated Press