A DAREDEVIL in a wheelchair fired himself down a ramp the height of a six-storey building to somersault through a giant loop that exploded into fireworks.
Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham, an American who was born with spina bifida, was the fearless ‘extreme wheelchair athlete whose dazzling entrance through the huge hoop marked the start of the opening ceremony for the Rio 2016 Paralympics at the legendary Maracana Stadium.
The next vignette in Brazil’s vivid and joyous Paralmpic ‘Cerimonia de Abertura’ was just as spectacular but in sharp contrast.
The floor of the stadium, by the magic of video, was slowly transformed into a huge shimmering pool and a swimmer did a length of it. The ‘virtual’ swimmer among the ripples was Brazil’s most famous Paralympic hero Daniel Dias, the Michael Phelps of Para Swimming who took up the sport at 16 and already has 10 golds in his haul of 15 Paralympic medals.
Minutes later, the floor transformed into a beach scene at the Cocacaba, replete with bathers, hawkers and sun umbrellas, a riot of Rio life, all dancing to nation’s infectious and unique bossa nova beat, and slowly it morphed again into a more poignant scene, as the umbrellas switched to form a giant mosaic of Brazil’s iconic flag and a man appeared to play the national anthem.
Joao Carlos Martina is a local music maestro and famous conductor whose gnarled fingers clearly showing the effects of the atrophy that has made him abandon playing his beloved piano. But he came out of retirement one last time; defying the apparent frailty of his body to celebrate life, just as so many others in this moving opening ceremony had done on their journey to becoming the best athletes on the planet in their chosen disciplines.
They came from 159 nations and in all sizes, shapes, colours and variations of the human form.
Some had four fully functioning limbs, some had none.
Many wheeled, others limped, some were guided and some were even carried yet, over the coming 11 days, they will challenge our perceptions about the limits of the human body and spirit.
The magnificent achievement of the Paralympic movement is not simply that it embraces and celebrates difference.
It is that it takes so-called ‘disability’ and turns it in ability; that it enables, not disables those who participate in it and, by extension, broadens all of our perceptions of what is possible in sport and life.
Even while the parade was continuing someone had published an article arguing that the use of the word ‘inspirational’ about Paralympic athletes is condescending and insulting.
The great thing about the Paralympic movement is that there is room for that point of view, because acceptance of everyone’s point of difference is the primary tenet of the organisation.
The sport of surfing, a sport so counter-culture that it has been an outlier for half a century, is now being embraced by the Olympic movement and will make its debut in the 2020 Olympics.
Among those taking part in this 2016 Paralympic ceremony was Davizinho, a local nine-year-old who was runner-up in last year’s inaugural World Adaptive Surfing Championships, a sporting concept that would have been absolutely unthinkable just a decade ago.
Paralympic sport continues to defy stereotypes and convention and, as it grows, so too does our understanding and expectations of those who take part in it.
As over 4,300 athletes filed past last night – withTeam Ireland led by legendary Cork sailor John Twomey in his record 11th Paralympic Games – each brought one piece of a giant jigsaw.
They were covered in the Paralympic accreditation photos of their athletes and all were gradually assembled – with Brazil providing the last piece- into a giant beating heart, to represent the organisers’ belief that ‘the heart knows no limits and everybody has a heart.’
The only sour note of the night, in a packed-stadium that defied the notion that Rio is not ready to embrace these Paralympics, was the vociferous booing rained down by the local Cariocas every time their acting president was mentioned.
But otherwise it was a joyous night and a Paralympic opening ceremony that let the athletes, and the vibrant music and spirit of its hosts, take centre-stage.
It really embodied the desire of its organisers to simply ‘do more with less.’
To do more with less.
What a marvellous summary of what Paralympic athletes do, and what we can expect to enjoy from everyone on Team Ireland, and all their international colleagues, between now and September 18.
Let the Games begin!