The Paralympic Games have wings and take flight in a spectacular Opening Ceremony24 Aug 2021
Japanese Para athletes Yui Kamiji, Shunsuke Uchida and Karin Morisaki turn and wave after lighting the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Flame
By N.D. Prashant and Ruth Faulkner I For The IPC
The wait is over! The uncertainty surrounding the Paralympic Games has been put to rest and the light that radiates from the flame at the Olympic Stadium symbolises the human defiance over the COVID-19 pandemic and the will to move onwards and upwards.
The curtains went up on the 16th Paralympic Games in Tokyo on 24 August in a glittering Opening Ceremony that connects the world, even without the presence of fans in the stadium. The excitement was clearly palpable among the Para athletes and everyone associated with Para sports.
For the 4,403 athletes, this is the moment they had been waiting for, as the world tries to get back on its feet from a pandemic that pressed pause across the world. Now they represent their countries, wearing their pride on their sleeves.
Former German speedster Henrich Popow aptly sums up the feeling that athletes will have heading into the first day of the Games: “For Para athletes, crises are always an opportunity. It is OK to be angry and OK to be mad about the crisis right now. It is OK to be against the pandemic. We all need to learn and it is not good to stop. If we stop, we lose.
“All we need to do is breathe in and breathe out. Get the understanding for the environment, for society and people who are different.”
With the premise of 'Moving Forward', the Opening Ceremony acknowledged the way the world came together to face a global threat.
Nye Cruickshank, flagbearer for Grenada, reiterated this sense of togetherness on entering the stadium: "It's been a very wonderful experience meeting people from all around the world, learning about their culture and teaching them about mine as well. So that's been a very good experience."
"It feels awesome. I feel on top of the world, the first Paralympic swimmer from Grenada. I hope I make them very proud," the 19 year old swimmer reiterated.
The ceremony kicked off with dancing from 'crew members' who supported a countdown timer before fireworks filled the skies to commence the evening.
Following the firework spectacular, the Japanese national flag was carried out by specially chosen flagbearers including athletes Mineho Ozaki, Miki Matheson, Taiyou Imai, Erina Yuguchi, Kaori Icho and Takumi Asatani, a rescue worker in the Tokyo Fire Department.
The national anthem sung by Sato Hirari would have given goosebumps to the Japanese people tuning in from the comforts of their home. Hirari, who was born with optic nerve hypoplasia causing her to be completely blind, had also performed the Japanese national anthem at the 34th National Cultural Festival in front of Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress.
The theme of the Opening Ceremony was 'We Have Wings'
And so it is only fitting that the ceremony setting was the 'Para airport'. The airport was chosen as a symbol of diversity and inclusion and is where the main protagonist of the ceremony performance 'lives'.
More than 15 per cent of the airport crew dancers were persons with disabilities, all wearing a purple tank top with the #WeThe15 logo under their jumpsuits. A total of 5,500 applicants auditioned to take part, from the youngest just five years old to those in their 70s - from this only 75 were selected.
Each and every person had a different motivation for applying: some wanted to show loved ones how they had recovered from their illness while others wanted to demonstrate to the world how everyone can be awe-inspiring, regardless of impairment.
The audience was then blown away by a dance performance with three inflatable Agitos stirred up by three gusts of wind created by propellers at the Para airport. These came together to form the Paralympic symbol Agitos.
The party started for the athletes when our attention was drawn to the DJ booth on the stage. Thirty two-year-old DJ Keita Tokunaga from Tokyo who has cerebral palsy, took spotlight when his airport style announcement welcomed the athletes into the stadium in the perfect way.
The Refugee Paralympic Team (RPT) walked into the stadium first, leading a total of 162 delegations, including five nations making their Games debut. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) displayed the Afghanistan flag in solidarity. The sentiment the audience can take away is that the athletes are heroes who can transform the world by bringing about winds of change.
We were then introduced to our protagonist who sums up this sentiment: a Little One-Winged Plane dreams of flying through the sky, but since she only has one wing, she has given up on her dream. She is yet to realise that she too has wings. As the star of our ceremony, we followed her through a personal journey to find her wings.
"Many doubted this day would happen"
The President of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), Seiko Hashimoto, and the President of the IPC, Andrew Parsons, delivered their speeches on the Protocol Stage to officially open the Games.
IPC President started his speech by saying: “I cannot believe we are finally here. Many doubted this day would happen. Many thought it impossible. But thanks to the efforts of many, the most transformative sport event on Earth is about to begin.”
He went on to thank the Japanese Government, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee and the International Olympic Committee for never losing faith and working tirelessly, alongside the International Paralympic Committee.
“We thank our hosts for trusting we can deliver safe Games for the athletes and officials, but also for Japanese society. From the bottom of my heart, arigato Japan! Arigato, Tokyo!
“We will honour your trust, your omotenashi, so that the outstanding legacy these Paralympic Games leave this country is a new perception of persons with disabilities. But we want more. We want to change the entire world.
“Over the next 10 years, WeThe15 will challenge how the world’s 15 per cent with disabilities are perceived and treated at a global level. With the support of 20 international organisations, civil society, the business sector, and the media we will put the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities firmly at the heart of the inclusion agenda.
"The Paralympic Games are for sure a platform for change. But only 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.”
The Games were officially opened by His Majesty the Emperor as six athletes carried the Paralympic flag to the Protocol Stage where they handed it to a group of essential workers. The flag was raised by members of the Self-Defence Forces on the Protocol Stage as the Para band played the Paralympic anthem.
The Para airport story was finished with the little one-winged plane finding her wings through the acceptance of those around her, including GIMICO, Japan’s first 'amputee model'. Through a powerful and colourful performance with rock concert vibes and a dazzling truck with music led by Tomoyasu Hotei, one of Japan’s most iconic guitarists, the group created an emotive exchange with our little protagonist.
Through the performance she is told: “The only thing stopping you from flying, is you.” — just as we too may discover our wings by watching the incredible acts of sporting brilliance and tenacity from the Para athletes.
This is a beautiful story that moved many watching from home, and fully characterised the ethos behind the Paralympic Movement shared by so many athletes.
Lisa Di Toro, flagbearer for the Australia team summed this up perfectly, saying: "This is my seventh Paralympics, I've seen it go through a lot of stages. This is a Movement that is extremely powerful. It has the opportunity to change people's lives, people's perceptions. That's the hope.
"This is a great vehicle for people with disability, but if we can be seen as incredible contributors to communities around the world, that's where it really matters. In the schools, in the boardrooms, in all the committees, that's where it matters so there's genuine diversity, thought and experience, that's what this movement brings," Di Toro concluded.
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games sets the record for the most athletes and women at a Paralympic Games, breaking barriers and changing perceptions on a scale never before achieved.
Buckle up for the next 12 days of breath-taking action, joy and be a part of some amazing life changing moments!