Nation and World: ‘Enlightenment’ gala opens London’s Paralympics



Blake Leeper warms up during a workout with other Paralympic athletes at the USA Olympic training facility in Chula Vista, California on April 13, 2012. Leeper ranks among the top sprinters headed for the 2012 Paralympic Games, which will be held after the London Olympics this summer. Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/MCT.

Sheila Norman-Culp

LONDON (AP) — Who better to help welcome the Paralympics than a scientist who has shown the world that physical limitations do not limit human potential?

“Enlightenment” was the theme, physicist Stephen Hawking the guide and Olympic Stadium the venue Wednesday night as London welcomed 4,200 athletes from 165 nations and territories to the 2012 Paralympic Games.

The extravaganza, directed by Bradley Hemmings and Jenny Sealey, was billed as a voyage across “a sea of ideas” — including Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, which all Earth-bound athletes strive against. The show included 73 deaf and disabled professional performers and 68 disabled people among its 3,250 volunteers.

The gala opened with a look at the Big Bang — considered the beginning of the universe — as a glowing sphere transported the Olympic Stadium into a giant nebula.

And of course, this being Britain, the words of Shakespeare once again were to make an appearance, with both Miranda of “The Tempest” and British actor Ian McKellen announcing that “the greatest adventure is what lies ahead.”

That, over the next 11 days, includes Paralympic athletes competing in 20 sports, including archery, cycling, rowing, equestrian, sailing, sitting volleyball, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair tennis and wheelchair basketball.

In the ceremony, Hawking was to direct the fictional Miranda to “be curious” — and the stadium was preparing to be transformed into a giant blinking eye.

As the athletes enter, they will be welcomed by a global music mash-up by local DJs before soprano Denise Leigh sings the tribute song “Spirit in Motion.” Other performers at the ceremony included soprano Elin Manahan Thomas, the British dance group Flawless and six London-based choirs.

And in a nod to the famously erratic British weather, umbrellas will be a central theme.

Along her travels, the curious Miranda navigated a maze to find an apple — and everyone in the stadium was given the fruit as they entered and encouraged to take a bite out of the fruit at a specific stage during the ceremony.

Authorities, meanwhile, promised to provide “a grand and global stage” for a games that everyone will remember.

Queen Elizabeth II said the nation looked forward to “celebrating the uplifting spirit which distinguishes the Paralympic Games from other events.”

Sebastian Coe, chief of the London organizing committee, planned to give a big welcome home “to a movement that shows what sport is all about.”

The Paralympic movement tracks its beginnings to the vision of Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, who in 1948 organized an archery competition for 16 injured patients at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Britain.

Wednesday’s ceremony was to conclude with Miranda breaking a glass ceiling — just as Paralympians must break through their own barriers — showering the stadium in pixels.

Society, too, was encouraged to break its old-fashioned perceptions of what disabled people can and cannot do.

“The Paralympic Games have inspired us to make London a more inclusive and welcoming city, to shift perceptions of disability and break down barriers in society,” London Mayor Boris Johnson said in a statement.