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Tokyo 2020 Paralympics under way with colourful and powerful opening ceremony

Fireworks illuminate over National Stadium viewed from Shibuya Sky observation deck during the Opening Ceremony for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato).
BY ED ELLIOT

The Tokyo Paralympic Games took flight with an allegorical aeroplane-themed opening ceremony packed with strong messages of inclusivity and hope for the world's disabled population. The Irish team were the third of the competing nations to be introduced to those in attendance and were led out by flag bearers, Britney Arendse and Jordan Lee.

Japan's Emperor Naruhito and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were among those present for a landmark moment organisers and many athletes feared may never happen.

The long-awaited event took place precisely 364 days later than planned and around 17 months since being postponed due to coronavirus.

The Great Britain team were led out by flagbearers swimmer Ellie Simmonds and archer John Stubbs in an almost-empty Olympic stadium populated only by selected dignitaries, volunteers and members of the media.

Yet it was 13-year-old wheelchair user Yui Wago who stole the show, producing a symbolic performance as 'The Little One-Winged Plane' who does not believe she can fly before finally taking off.

Addressing the gathered athletes ahead of 12 days of action, International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Andrew Parsons called for an end to discrimination.

"If the world has ever labelled you, now is your time to be relabelled: champion, hero, friend, colleague, role model or just human," he said.

"You are the best of humanity and the only ones who can decide who and what you are.

"The Paralympic Games are for sure a platform for change but every four years is not enough.

"It is up to each and every one of us to play our part every day to make for a more inclusive society, in our countries, in our cities, in our communities.

"Difference is a strength, it is not a weakness and as we build back better, the post-pandemic world must feature societies where opportunities exist for all.

"Many doubted this day would happen, many thought it impossible, but thanks to the efforts of many the most transformative event on earth is about to begin."

'We Have Wings' was the concept of the lengthy ceremony, a message which was emblazoned on the floor of an almost-empty Olympic Stadium which had been transformed into a 'Para Airport'.

Giant propellers and balloons surrounded the outer stage, forming the Paralympic Agitos, while 100 'crew members' waved scarves in the colours of the symbol - red, green and blue - followed by a fireworks display.

The Parade of Nations was preceded by a poignant moment as the six-strong Refugee Paralympic Team (RPT) entered first.

Afghanistan-born swimmer Abbas Karimi, who was born without arms, and club throw athlete Alia Issa - a Syrian refugee and the team's first female member - carried their flag, beginning a procession of competitors from across the world.

As the parade uses the alphabet of the home nation, Iceland - 'Aisurando' in Japanese - were second out, followed by Ireland - 'Airurando'.

Notable absentees were New Zealand and Afghanistan.

The Kiwi contingent opted to send a sole representative as flagbearer due to Covid-19 fears, while the Afghan flag was flown by the IPC as a sign of solidarity after athletes from there were denied a chance to perform by the uncertainty caused by the recent Taliban takeover.

A total of 162 delegations, three more than Rio 2016, are poised take part in the Games, with five countries - Bhutan, Grenada, Maldives, Paraguay and St Vincent and the Grenadines - making debuts.

Japan's team, the largest with 260 members, entered last, prompting a relative roar from the few fortunate to be in attendance.

Tokyo is making history as the first city to host the summer Paralympic Games for a second time, having also done so in 1964.

Tokyo 2020 president Hashimoto Seiko echoed the comments of IPC president Parsons in her opening speech.

"We hope the Games will be an opportunity to build a society where everyone is free to live as who they are in mutual support and understanding, free from discrimination or barriers of any kind," she said.

"Athletes and sport have the power to change the world and our future - and that is precisely our mission. Half a century after the 1964 Games, the time has come for social change."

The lighting of the Paralympic Cauldron by three wheelchair-bound medical professionals - Taro Nakamura, Tamami Tamura and Famio Usui - provided a fitting end to an immensely challenging build-up, with seven of the 22 Paralympic sports set to feature when the action gets under way on Wednesday.

Thoughts now turn to the competition itself as the first Irish athletes started their campaigns for Paralympic glory in the early hours of this morning on a busy day for the Irish. The first Irish athlete to compete in Tokyo was Barry McClements who was due in the pool for his S9 400m Freestyle heat at 1.06am Irish Time. He was due to be joined by fellow swimmers Nicole Turner (S6 50mFreestyle) at 02.24am and first-time Paralympian Róisín Ní Riain in the 100m Butterfly at 2.24am.

Meanwhile, at the Velodrome in Izu, Richael Timothy was due to be the first of a strong Irish Para Cycling team that will compete throughout the Games. Richael got her competition underway at 2am in the qualifier for the C1-C3 3000m Individual pursuit and should she qualify she will return for the final at 5.45am.

Colin Judge's Table Tennis schedule has seen some slight changes and he will now compete ton Day 1 at 1.40am Irish time before returning to action tomorrow for the second match in his three person group.

Changes elsewhere also mean that Michael McKillop will now compete in a straight final in the T37/38 1500m on September 4 and will no longer have a heat whilst Greta Streimikyte will now have a heat on Friday in her T13 1500m and should she qualify she will return for the final on Saturday

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